Did anyone else catch the very busy Twitter chat about the FTC’s fine against Google?
It can be found by using the #FTCpriv hashtag, and the chat centered on the Federal Trade Commission’s $22.5 million fine to settle charges that Google circumvented privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser.
While some privacy advocates are excited by the ruling, others say that it amounts to a little more than a slap on the wrist.
How They Did It
Apple blocks third-party cookies by default in Safari, but Google was allegedly able to get around the block and enable cookies until it was discovered by a Stanford researcher in 2009. Google denied that it was intentional and said personal information was not collected. They immediately disabled the tracking.
Google was able to exploit an exception to the Safari’s default settings to place a temporary cookie on users’ computers. Because of how Safari operates, this temporary cookie allowed all other cookies from the same domain.
If you don’t know what cookies are and what they do, a cookie is a tiny piece of code. Advertising networks place cookies your computer to collect information about what websites you to go and uses that information to serve tailored online ads to you.
While some people don’t mind being tracked, other people think it’s an invasion of their privacy.
The Good News and the Not So Good News
On one hand, the $22.5 million dollar settlement is the largest ever imposed by the FTC to make sure that companies live up to their privacy promises. The order also requires that Google disable all tracking cookies not previously mentioned to consumers.
On the other hand, Google makes over $30 million a day, so the fine is just a drop in the bucket to Google. Moreover, by paying the fine, they don’t have to admit any guilt.
At the very least, the penalty sends a message that the FTC is starting to take privacy violations more seriously, even if it amounts to little more than a traffic ticket. What’s unclear is whether or not the fine is large enough to dissuade other companies from doing the same thing that Google did.
The jury is still out on that one.
How You Can Protect Yourself from Being Tracked
The technology that online advertisers use is more advanced than most privacy options that web browsers offer. However, there are a few things that you can do to protect your online privacy.
First, ensure that your browser has disabled third-party cookies. If you don’t know how to do this, here’s a great explanation of how to turn off cookies in Internet Explorer, Safari, and Chrome: http://howto.cnet.com/8301-11310_39-20042703-285/disable-third-party-cookies-in-ie-firefox-and-google-chrome/.
And here’s how to do it in Firefox: http://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/disable-third-party-cookies.
You can also install a free plug-in that blocks all third-party content. For example, the Ghostery add-on detects and blocks all third-party cookies.
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