Google has agreed to pay $17 million to 37 states for circumventing privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser in 2011. Safari blocked tracking cookies by default, but Google overrode the settings. Stanford researchers discovered the problem, leading to a nationwide investigation.
New York’s Attorney General wrote an overjoyed press release, announcing “nearly $900K from Google to prevent future violations of consumer privacy”. Google has also paid $22.5M to the FTC over the same issue.
Interestingly enough, a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit from users, finding that plaintiffs could not prove any harm had occurred.
“While plaintiffs have offered some evidence that the online personal information at issue has some modicum of identifiable value to an individual plaintiff,” explained Judge Sue Robinson [PDF], “plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that the ability to monetize their PII has been diminished or lost by virtue of Google’s previous collection of it.”
While it’s obvious that Google misled users (intentionally or not), it’s not clear why that should result in a multi-million dollar fine. I’d like to remind readers that consumers are affected when states rush to the collect money from the Google lawsuit piñata. AllThingsD reports that the much-loved Google Reader was shuttered because the company could not justify the privacy costs necessary to keep the program running.
These lawsuits are not a simple David vs. Goliath story. It’s as likely that overzealous prosecutors can affect consumers as much as a data-hungry search giant.