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Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen Announces $17 Million Multistate Settlement with Google Over Tracking of Consumers

MADISON — Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen announced today that the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ), along with the Attorneys General of 36 other states and the District of Columbia, entered into a settlement with Google Inc. concerning misleading representations about the privacy of web browsing while using certain Safari Web browsers during 2011 and 2012.  Specifically, the States alleged that Google misled users of Apple’s Safari Web browser into believing that their browsing would be private, when in fact Google was circumventing Safari’s default privacy settings.   


Google, the most popular search engine on the Internet, generates revenue primarily through advertising.  Through its DoubleClick advertising platform, Google sets third-party cookies -- small files set in consumers’ Web browsers -- that enable it to gather information about those consumers, including, depending on the type of cookie, their Web surfing habits.  Apple’s Safari Web browser is set by default to block third-party cookies, including cookies set by DoubleClick to track a consumer’s browsing history.


Google had been offering consumers the ability to opt out of having third-party advertising cookies set on their browsers through installing an advertising cookie opt-out plugin.  On its Web page describing that advertising cookie opt-out plugin, Google represented to consumers using Apple’s Safari Web browser (“Safari users”) that “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.” 


However, from June 1, 2011 until February 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent those default privacy settings on Safari, without consumers’ knowledge or consent, enabling it to set DoubleClick cookies on consumers’ Safari Web browsers.  Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was widely reported on the Internet and in media.


Google’s representations about its privacy settings were misleading to Safari users because it suggested, in its description of the advertising cookie opt-out plugin, that they would not receive third-party cookies, when Google subsequently took steps to circumvent Safari’s default settings for the purpose of setting third-party cookies.  By circumventing Safari’s default settings, Google placed cookies on the computers of Safari users without the consumers’ knowledge or consent.  The state alleged that Google’s representations that third-party cookies were blocked for Safari users was misleading, thereby violating Wisconsin’s consumer protection statutes.


“Consumers using the Internet are entitled to accurate information about the privacy of their Internet browsing, including the tracking of their activity through the placement of cookies or otherwise.  Misrepresenting that tracking will not occur, when that is not the case, is unacceptable, as this settlement emphasizes,” Attorney General Van Hollen said.


In order to resolve the states’ allegations, Google has agreed to pay the participating states and the District of Columbia $17 million, of which Wisconsin will receive $336,088.06.  Google also agreed to do the following:


·        Not deploy the type of code at issue in this matter to override a browser’s cookie blocking settings without the consumer’s prior consent unless it is necessary to do so in order to detect, prevent or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues;

·        Not misrepresent or omit material information to consumers about how they can use any particular Google product, service, or tool to directly manage how Google serves advertisements to their browsers;

·        Improve the information it provides to consumers regarding cookies, their purposes, and how they can be managed by consumers using Google’s products or services and tools;

·        Maintain systems designed to ensure the expiration of the third-party cookies set on Safari Web browsers while their default settings had been circumvented.


In addition to Wisconsin, the following states participated in the investigation and settlement:  Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.


Click here for Assurance of Voluntary Compliance