NJ Joins Multi-State Settlement With Google Resolving Internet User Privacy Allegations

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John J. Hoffman

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman

TRENTON — New Jersey has joined 36 states and the District of Columbia in a $17 million settlement with Internet giant Google that resolves allegations Google unlawfully circumvented the default privacy settings in Safari Web browsers,  Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced today.

New Jersey was a member of the Executive Committee that led the investigation of Google and negotiated the multi-state settlement. The state’s share of the Google settlement is approximately $655,000, which will be used to fund consumer protection initiatives.

Cookies are small files set in Internet users’ Web browsers that allow third-party advertisers to gather information about those users including, depending on the type of cookie, their web surfing habits. Apple’s Safari Web browser blocks third-party cookies via its default privacy settings — including cookies used by Google’s DoubleClick advertising platform to track a consumer’s browsing history.

Between June 1, 2011 and February 15, 2012, however, Google allegedly altered the coding of its DoubleClick platform to circumvent the default privacy settings of Safari browsers. The altered code enabled third-party advertisers who used Google DoubleClick to get around Safari’s privacy controls and plant cookies without the computer operator’s knowledge or consent. Google disabled its code method in February 2012 after its practice of breaching Safari’s default privacy settings was detected and reported by bloggers.

Earlier this year, the state entered into a similar settlement with PulsePoint, an online advertising company that also allegedly used hidden JavaScript code to bypass the privacy settings of Safari Web browsers without users’ knowledge or consent. The New-York-based PulsePoint allegedly placed unauthorized cookies on Safari browsers despite the fact that the browsers’ privacy settings were set specifically to block cookies from third-party advertisers. The unauthorized cookies may have enabled third-party advertisers to target consumers with ads based on their online activities.

“We take seriously the issue of online privacy, and are committed to upholding laws designed to protect New Jersey citizens while they use the Internet,” said Hoffman. “Today’s settlement with Google should serve as another reminder that we will not tolerate conduct that involves circumventing browser privacy settings without the consumer’s knowledge or consent. Consumers have every right to surf the Web without fear that businesses are bypassing their privacy settings through technical tricks.”

Google operates the most popular search engine on the Internet. Use of the search engine is free, so Google generates revenue primarily through advertising.

Through the Google DoubleClick advertising platform, Google sets third-party cookies that enable it to gather information about consumers and their Web use habits.

Google had been offering consumers the ability to opt out of having third-party advertising cookies set on their browsers by installing an advertising cookie opt-out plugin. In a Google Web page posting that described the opt-out plugin, Google suggested to consumers who use Apple’s Safari Web browser that they need not install the plug-in.

“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,” the Google posting explained.

New Jersey and the other participating states allege that Google’s explanation was deliberately misleading, because Google was taking active steps to circumvent Safari’s default setting and allow third-party cookies at the same time it was telling Safari users their default settings would block such cookies.

New Jersey and the other participating states allege that Google’s circumvention of the default privacy settings in Safari for blocking third-party cookies violates state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws.

In order to resolve the allegations, Google will not only have to pay the participating states a total of $17 million, but also has agreed to:

  • Not deploy code used to override a browser’s cookie-blocking settings without the consumer’s 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 New Jersey, the 10-state executive committee that led the Google investigation included Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Texas, Vermont and Washington.

The multi-state settlement with Google also includes the Offices of Attorney General for Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Deputy Attorney General Jah-Juin Hoh, assigned to the Division of Law’s Affirmative Civil Enforcement group, handled the Google matter on behalf of the State.

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