Google Inc. Faces New Privacy Investigations in the U.S. and Europe

Regulators in the U.S. and European Union are investigating Google, claim people familiar with the investigations.

The investigations may lead Google Inc. to years of legal battles and result in hefty fines for privacy violations. Photo: Robert Scoble/Flickr

Experts in the U.S. and Europe are probing Google Inc. for bypassing the privacy settings of millions of users of Apple Inc.’s Safari Web browser, the insiders told reporters.

According to February reports, the company used special computer code to install tiny tracking files, or “cookies,” on some people’s computers, iPhones and iPads, even if the devices were set to block this kind of tracking, reports The Wall Street Journal.

“We created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google’s servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google,” a Google spokeswoman explained.

She continued: “We will of course cooperate with any officials who have questions. But it’s important to remember that we didn’t anticipate this would happen, and we have been removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers.”

Safari is currently the most popular mobile web browser, rebuilt in all models of Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Google allegedly circumvented the protection to build up profiles of web users, using a ‘cookie’ that collected advertising information, writes The Daily Mail.

Google has since disabled the code, insisting that the report was in error, and that its cookies only collected anonymous information. San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “It’s time for Google to acknowledge that it can do a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users.”

“Unlike other major browsers, Apple’s Safari browser blocks third-party cookies by default,” said a Google spokesperson at the time.

“However, Safari enables many web features for its users that rely on third parties and third-party cookies, such as ‘Like’ buttons.  Last year, we began using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on Safari.”

He continued: “To enable these features, we created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google’s servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for this type of personalization.”

“However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser.  We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers.”

The Federal Trade Commission in US is currently checking whether Google’s actions violated last year’s legal settlement with the government in which Google pledged not to “misrepresent” its privacy practices to consumers, say insiders familiar with the investigation.

The fine for violating the agreement is $16,000 per violation, per day. As millions of people suffered, any fine could add up quickly, depending on the way it is calculated. The FTC declined to comment.

The probes in the U.S. and Europe suggest the toll that the rivalry has taken on Google as it tries to build more social-networking tools into its own products to compete with Facebook.

This week, a former Google CEO, James Whittaker, announced that he left the company as he felt it was trying too hard to push its rival social-networking service, Google+, into all corners of the organization.

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