by Heather Asiyanbi

State residents who use Safari as their Internet browser were vindicated this week when Google settled a $17 million privacy browsing lawsuit with Wisconsin, 36 other states and the District of Columbia.

At the center of the suit is a kind of bait-and-switch Google was running on Safari users from June 1, 2011 until February 15, 2012: getting them to bypass Safari’s default setting that blocks tracking cookies so that Google could take advantage of users’ browsing habits.

In a nutshell, Google earns money through Double-Click ads that place cookies inside users’ web browsers. Safari has a default setting that automatically blocks cookies, including those from Google’s Double-Click ads.

What Google was doing was offering consumers an “advertising cookie opt-out plugin” that essentially disabled Safari’s blocked setting, tricking users into thinking they were protected when, in fact, they were not.

“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 a written statement about the settlement.

Wisconsin will receive $336,088.06 of the $17 million, and those funds will pay the state’s legal fees associated with the lawsuit as well as beef up the bottom line for the consumer protection law enforcement fund.

In return, Google has agreed to a number of conditions. From the press release:

–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.

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