The Wall Street Journal reported earlier today Google will pay $17 million “to settle allegations brought by 37 states and the District of Columbia that it placed unauthorized tracking ‘cookies’ on Web browsers in 2011 and 2012.” That $17 million, combined with the $22.5 million Google paid as part of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settlement over the same claims, brings to nearly $40 million the amount the company has forked over to resolve “Cookiegate.”
In February 2012 the Wall Street Journal initially reported that Google and a couple of other ad networks, including Gannett’s PointRoll, had bypassed the mobile Safari browser’s default “no third party cookies” settings. At the time Google said it was merely trying to make its “+1 buttons” work on iOS.
Google issued the following statement when the scandal initially broke in early 2012:
We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.
Now the particular matter seems fully resolved. Undoubtedly, however, there will be more privacy scandals, investigations and, probably, future fines. And this is by no means limited to Google, Facebook has also suffered more than its share of privacy problems and, more recently, claims and multimillon-dollar legal settlements.
The underlying issues in dispute in the “Cookiegate” matter are obscure to the public. The settlement may make some mainstream news but will probably have little or no immediate impact on Google usage.
One has to wonder, however, if these claims and settlements cumulatively and over time aren’t taking some kind of toll on Google’s brand and image. Any such impact could be “mitigated” by the fact that virtually all of the major US internet companies, more or less equally, have been swept up in the NSA domestic spying scandal. This episode could just become more “background noise” in that broader controversy.
Yet the rash of privacy scandals, claims and investigations of Google, Facebook and others is undoubtedly making the public much more cynical. When internet companies say “we take privacy seriously” or “we care about user privacy,” the public is now much less likely to accept such statements as sincere or trustworthy.
That’s an “empirical question,” of course. But I suspect it’s true.