Google to pay $17M to states in Apple cookies case

State attorneys general accused the company of circumventing cookie-blocking defaults in the Safari browser

Google has reached a $17 million settlement with 37 states and the District of Columbia over its unauthorized placement of cookies on devices running Apple's Safari browser, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Monday.

The states accused Google of placing tracking on computers of Safari users when they visited sites in Google's DoubleClick ad network in 2011 and 2012. The company in August 2012 also agreed to pay a $22.5 million civil penalty to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the largest penalty the agency had secured for a violation of one of its orders

"Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them," Schneiderman said in a statement. "By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust."

Google said it was pleased to reach the settlement. "We work hard to get privacy right at Google and have taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple's browsers," a spokeswoman said by email.

By default, Apple's Safari browser blocks third-party cookies, including cookies from DoubleClick to track a consumer's browsing history. From June 2011 to February 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent those default privacy settings on Safari, without consumers' knowledge or consent, Schneiderman said in a press release.

The state attorneys general alleged that Google's circumvention of Safari's default privacy settings violated state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws. Google failed to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings and that Google's earlier representation that third-party cookies were blocked for Safari users was misleading, they alleged.

Google, in the settlement, agreed it would not override a browser's cookie-blocking settings without a customer's consent, unless it was necessary to do so to detect or prevent fraud and other security issues. The company also agreed to give consumers more information about cookies and how to manage them.

Among the states involved in the settlement are Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and California.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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