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Google expected to cough measly $22.5m for Safari privacy gaffe

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Google is reportedly set to cough up a piddly penalty payment of $22.5m to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle its sneaky bypassing of the default privacy settings of Apple's Safari browser.

It was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in February this year that Google, Vibrant Media Inc, WPP PLC's Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co's PointRoll Inc used code that "tricked" Safari into allowing users to have their online browsing habits tracked.

Apple's browser blocks most tracking by default with exceptions for websites that, for example, require interaction from a user – such as the filling in of an online form. Google claimed at the time that it had "mischaraterised" the code used by the ad companies.

Google later disabled the code, which installed a temporary cookie on the phones or computers of Safari users; the search biz's developers had embedded code into some of its ads that fooled the Apple browser into thinking that a form was being submitted to Google.

The WSJ is now reporting that Mountain View is close to settling with the FTC with a fine said to be the biggest of all time handed down by the regulator to a corporation.

Google offered up a withering statement to The Register that appeared to indicate that it had already accepted defeat.

We cannot comment on any specifics. However we do set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users. The FTC is focused on a 2009 help centre page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers.

The consent decree in question is the one the internet giant signed with the FTC in October last year, when Google agreed to be much more up front about its data-handling methods with its customers.

After Google's Buzz privacy howler in 2010, the company is now subjected to biennial audits for the next 20 years.

Google, as part of that agreement, avoided being fined and did not have to admit that its biz practices had been unlawful. However, if that decree has been violated, then the FTC was always clear that a fine would be slapped on Google.

The penalty is calculated based on $16,000 per violation per day and the number of iPad, iPhone and Mac users affected by Google's Safari privacy blunder could run into millions of customers.

However, as noted by the WSJ, Google racks up sales of over $20m roughly every five hours.

Perhaps Google just wants to pay the reported $22.5m fine and get on with fighting competition officials on the other side of the Atlantic. In Brussels, Belgium, the company is still fighting off "abuse of dominance" claims over its share of the search market in Europe.

The company's chairman, Eric Schmidt, sent a letter to the European Commission containing a "proposal" that Google claimed addressed the four areas of concern expressed earlier this year by Euro antitrust commissioner Joaquin Almunia.

The commissioner's office told El Reg this morning that competition officials were still perusing the contents of the letter, which has not been made public by Google.

Meanwhile, Google is undergoing a separate antitrust investigation in the US over claims the company unfairly manipulated results on its search engine to favour its own business. ®

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