U.S. lawmakers call on FTC to investigate Google over Safari cookies

The lawmakers are concerned that Google may have violated a consent agreement it reached with the FTC last year

Three lawmakers from the U.S. House of Representatives have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether last week's report of privacy violations of Safari users by Google violated a consent agreement the company had reached with the FTC last year.

Google's alleged circumvention of do-not-track controls on Apple's Safari browser could have a wide sweeping impact because Safari is a major web browser used by millions of Americans, according to a letter to the FTC on Friday from Republican Representatives Cliff Stearns of Florida and Joe Barton of Texas, and Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts.

"As members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we are interested in any actions that FTC has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google has violated the terms of its consent agreement," the lawmakers said in the letter.

"We are taking steps to address concerns, and we are happy to answer any questions regulators and others may have," Google spokesman Chris Gaither said in an email.

The consent order entered on Oct. 13 among other things bars Google from making misrepresentations regarding its privacy policies, and requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, including retaining an independent third-party professional to assess its privacy controls every two years, FTC said.

The alleged Safari circumvention could lead to large fines if the FTC decides that Google violated the consent agreement.

The three senators were one of eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives who asked last month for FTC scrutiny of Google's decision to share user data across its online services, and said they wanted Google to provide users a simple and straightforward opt out from the data collection.

A number of privacy groups asked the FTC last week to investigate the alleged circumvention of Safari controls.

Google said it did not intentionally install tracking cookies. "We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled," Rachel Whetstone, Google senior vice president for communications and public policy, said in a statement. "It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

The FTC said last week it was aware of the allegations against Google, but it is likely to want to set the pace for its investigations, as indicated by a filing in a related lawsuit before a federal court in the District of Columbia filed by Electronic Privacy Information Center,

EPIC had alleged that Google's proposed consolidation of data across its services, that will take effect on March 1, will result in a violation of the consent order. It asked the court to compel the FTC to file a civil action in a U.S court to enforce a consent order.

But the government said in the filing Friday that "no statutory provision circumscribes the Commission's decision whether to initiate enforcement proceedings; thus, such a decision is not subject to judicial review". Forcing the Commission to bring a particular enforcement action within an arbitrary time limit would be wholly inimical to the public interest in the effective enforcement of the laws that Congress has passed to protect the public and entrusted the FTC to enforce, it added.

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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