By Gitte Laasby

Consumers who browsed the web with Apple's Safari browser between 2011 and 2012 may have thought their Internet surfing wouldn't be tracked. But despite promises to the contrary, Google circumvented Safari's privacy settings and tracked consumers anyway, according to a multistate settlement announced Monday.

Under the settlement, Google has agreed to pay a combined $17 million in penalties to 36 states for misleading consumers. Wisconsin will get $336,000, according to a news release from Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen on Monday.

Google, which generates most of its revenue through advertising, uses its DoubleClick advertising platform to set third-party cookies -- small files set in consumers' web browsers -- that enable it to gather information about those consumers, including their web browsing habits.

Apple's Safari web browser is set by default to block third-party cookies, including cookies set by DoubleClick to track a consumer's browsing history.

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According to the news release:

Google had been offering consumers the ability to opt out of having third-party advertising cookies set on their browsers through installing an additional advertising cookie opt-out plug-in. On its website, Google led consumers to think installing the additional plug-in was unnecessary by telling Safari users, "Safari is set by default to block all third-party cookies. If you have not changed those settings, this option effectively accomplishes the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie."

But Google actually circumvented that privacy setting.

"From June 1, 2011, until Feb. 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent those default privacy settings on Safari, without consumers' knowledge or consent, enabling it to set DoubleClick cookies on consumers' Safari web browsers," the state said in its news release.

Google disabled that coding method in February 2012 after the practice was reported on the Internet and in media.

The state alleged that Google's representations that third-party cookies were blocked for Safari users was misleading, which violated Wisconsin's consumer protection statutes.

"Consumers using the Internet are entitled to accurate information about the privacy of their Internet browsing, including the tracking of their activity through the placement of cookies or otherwise. Misrepresenting that tracking will not occur, when that is not the case, is unacceptable, as this settlement emphasizes," Van Hollen said in the news release.

In addition to paying penalties, Google also agreed to:

  • Not deploy the same type of code to override a browser's cookie blocking settings without the consumer's prior consent "unless it is necessary to do so in order to detect, prevent or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues."
  • Not to misrepresent or omit "material information" to consumers about how they can use any particular Google product, service or tool to directly manage how Google serves advertisements to their browsers.
  • Improve the information it provides to consumers regarding cookies, their purposes, and how they can be managed by consumers using Google's products or services and tools.
  • Maintain systems designed to ensure the expiration of the third-party cookies set on Safari web browsers while their default settings had been circumvented.

(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel