Google Ordered to Pay a Record $22.5 Million for Violating Privacy

PHOTO: A screenshot of the privacy settings screen in Apples Safari browser.
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The Federal Trade Commission has ordered Google to pay $22.5 million for violating user privacy on its Apple's Safari browser. It's the biggest FTC fine ever issued for a commission violation.

The federal agency found that Google had been tracking "cookies" on Google sites for Apple Safari users. It was also sending targeted ads to those users, which violated another settlement between the FTC and the search-engine giant.

Google claimed that a tweak in Apple's browser caused an unintentional violation, but the FTC was not swayed by such an argument.

"A company like Google, which is a steward of information for hundreds of millions of people has to do better," David Vladeck, the FTC director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, told reporters on a conference call following the announcement.

The potential privacy violation was first detected by Jonathan Mayer, a Standford University graduate student, who realized that Google was still tracking his cookies, even though he had tried to block it.

"This seems to be the kind of thing the company shouldn't be doing," Mayer told ABC News in February.

As a result of this and other violations, a "Do Not Track," or DNT, setting had been added to various browsers, including Mozilla's Firefox, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari. Still, with this particular violation, the FTC charged that during 2011 and 2012, Google had been tracking Safari users -- on Macs, iPhones and iPads -- who had opted out of such tracking, as a result of default settings in the browser.

Google has not admitted to violating the law. "The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendant has actually violated the law. This consent order is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant that the law has been violated," the FTC said in a news release.

A Google spokesperson held to that as well. "We set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users. The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy," the spokesperson told ABC News. "We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple's browsers."

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