The Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") recently announced settlements of cases brought against Google and Facebook for alleged privacy violations. The Google settlement drew headlines for being the largest fine ever assessed for the violation of a FTC consent order ($22.5 million). But Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch's dissents are perhaps more momentous, as they have prompted the FTC to re-examine its practice of accepting settlements in which companies deny wrongdoing.
The FTC's complaint against Google alleged that the Internet services company circumvented the privacy controls in Apple's Safari Internet browser. The FTC claimed that despite telling Safari users that they did not need to change the browser's default privacy settings, Google exploited an exception in Safari's cookie-blocking software to allow advertising tracking cookies. This, the FTC alleged, violated a previous settlement agreement that prohibited Google from, among other things, misrepresenting the degree of control a consumer has over collection of her personal information. The earlier settlement agreement resolved allegations brought in 2011 that Google used deceptive practices and violated its public privacy promises when it launched its social networking product, Google Buzz (which we blogged about here).
Senior FTC attorney Leslie Fair also blogged about the record-breaking Google settlement, discussing some general practices to avoid FTC scrutiny: