In the wake of a Stanford University researcher’s study that found Google has been violating people’s online privacy choices, Consumer Watchdog said today the Internet giant was lying to users and called for the Federal Trade Commission to act. iPhone and iPad users were targeted.
“Google has clearly engaged in ‘unfair and deceptive’ practices,” says John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “They have been lying about how people can protect their privacy in their instructions about how to opt out of receiving targeted advertising.”
A study made public today by Jonathan Mayer of Stanford University’s Security Lab, and the Center for Internet and Society, found that Google has been circumventing a privacy setting in Apple’s Safari web browser. Like most web browsers, Safari provides the option not to receive third-party “cookies.” Cookies are small bits of code placed on the browser and can be used by ad networks to track you as you surf the web. Blocking third-party cookies is supposed to prevent such tracking.
Safari is the primary browser on the iPhone and iPad. The Stanford study found that three other companies — Vibrant Media., WPP PLC’s Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.’s PointRoll — were also circumventing the Safari privacy setting.
In a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson wrote:
“The Stanford study found that Google’s DoubleClick ad network was sending out software invisible to the user that circumvented the Safari setting and allowed a tracking cookie to be set. The study results were first reported in the Wall Street Journal.
“Safari users with the browser set to block third-party cookies, thought they were not being tracked. Nonetheless, because of an element invisible to the user, but designed to mimic a form, DoubleClick was able to set tracking cookies in an obvious violation of the set preference.”
“Making Google’s actions even more outrageous is false advice it gave to Safari users in describing how to permanently opt out of receiving Google’s targeted advertising.”
Google has developed a so-called browser “plug-in” for Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome that makes the opt-out persistent. Google hasn’t developed a plug-in for Safari. The false advice Google gave Safari users follows:
“While we don’t yet have a Safari version of the Google advertising cookie opt-out plugin, Safari is set by default to block all third-party cookies. If you have not changed those settings, this option effectively accomplishes the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie.”
Google then explained how to verify the setting. You can view a screenshot of the Advertising Cookie Opt-out Plugin advice page taken on Feb. 14 at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/screen_shot_2012-02-14_at_5.04.05_pm.png .
“But the advice was false. Google was lying,” wrote Simpson. “It was in fact circumventing the privacy choice and setting DoubleClick tracking cookies.”
Clearly Google knows that it was in the wrong, Consumer Watchdog said. After the company was confronted about the Stanford research, it changed its advice page, removing the specific references to Safari. You can view a screenshot of the sanitized Advertising Cookie Opt-out Plugin advice page taken on Feb. 15 at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/screen_shot_2012-02-15_at_4.42.49_pm.png .
Consumer Watchdog’s letter concluded: “Google’s behavior is clearly “unfair and deceptive,” but more than that, it violates the ‘Buzz’ Consent Decree, which you reached with Google after it violated users’ privacy when it launched the Buzz social network. Section I begins: ‘It is ordered that respondent, in or affecting commerce, shall not misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication: (A) the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any covered information, including, but not limited to, misrepresentations related to: 1. The purposes for which it collects and uses covered information, and (2) the extent to which consumers may exercise control over collection, use, or disclosure of covered information.’
“Google falsely told Safari users that they could control the collection of data by ensuring that third-party cookies were blocked, when in fact Google was circumventing the preference and setting tracking cookies.
“The Stanford research identified three other companies – Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC’s Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.’s PointRoll Inc. – that were circumventing Safari privacy preferences. They should be closely investigated as well. However, given Google’s dominance of online and mobile advertising and the fact that the company’s actions flagrantly violate its consent agreement with the Commission, I call on you to focus immediate attention on the Internet giant.”
You can read Consumer Watchdog’s letter to the FTC at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrleibowitz021712.pdf .