The incident informally known as “Safarigate” or “Cookiegate” is now behind Google. On Friday, a court approved Google’s $22.5 million settlement with the FTC. Some Google critics decried the settlement as having little impact on Google.
The episode began in February of this year, when the Wall Street Journal discovered that Google (and others such as Gannett’s PointRoll) were circumventing mobile Safari’s default “no third party cookies” settings in order to track user behaviors. Google contended it was simply trying to make its “+1 buttons” work on iOS.
The company argued nothing sinister was intended. The Wall Street Journal characterized Google’s actions as “tricking” Safari.
The FTC investigated and determined that Google’s actions violated the terms of an earlier settlement over the “Buzz” social network in which Google had agreed not to act in ways that were “deceptive” toward consumers and contradicted its own privacy policies.
Despite the formal conclusion of this incident, online and mobile privacy will continue to be major issues for Google and others as we head into 2013. However, as the end of 2012 approaches, the legal question that looms largest is whether Google will face formal antitrust cases in the US and Europe.
While the rules and legal requirements to prove antitrust violations differ somewhat in the US and Europe, authorities on both sides of the Atlantic hope to gain settlement concessions that will avoid protracted and resource-intensive legal battles against Google. It’s quite likely that one or both investigations will settle and avoid litigation.
One reason is that regulators’ legal cases against Google are far from airtight. In addition, bruising legal battles that don’t result in “wins” would expose FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz and EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia to potentially intense professional criticism. Accordingly politics, personality and personal reputation are thus probably playing a complicating role behind the scenes in what otherwise would be challenging legal calculation anyway.