Congress Gets Involved In Google’s Latest Privacy Scandal


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Google made news in a big way last week with the revelation that they had engineered an exploit that circumvented privacy settings in Safari (desktop and iOS versions) in order to allow their ads to set tracking cookies on users’ computers. Google responded quickly to the Wall Street Journal’s report, saying that the workaround was solely intended for users who were signed into Google services and who had checked the necessary boxes saying they wanted to see personalized advertising. The fact that other advertisers were able to exploit the same workaround and plant tracking cookies of their own was, Google said, an unintended side effect.

The issue has apparently caught the attention of U.S. lawmakers, who have asked the FTC to investigate whether Google’s actions violate an October 2011 consent order dealing with user privacy in relation to Google’s short-lived Buzz social network. In a letter (PDF) to agency chairman Jon Leibowitz, Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts), Joe Barton (R-Texas), and Cliff Sterns (R-Florida) said that the widespread popularity of the iOS platform, which uses Safari as its default browser, means that “Google’s practices could have a wide sweeping impact.” The congressmen also note that the timing of this scandal, just as Google is set to roll out a new unified privacy policy, adds to the urgency of the situation. Sterns is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, Markey and Barton are co-chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.

This is not the first time that this particular consent order has been in the news, nor even the first time that the FTC has been asked to investigate whether Google has violated it. Two weeks ago the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued the FTC in an attempt to compel the agency to block the new privacy policy, which they alleged violated the consent order. The FTC has responded to that suit with a motion to dismiss, on the grounds that EPIC has no right to involve itself in the FTC’s enforcement practices.

There is no word yet on whether the FTC has responded to the three congressmen’s letter, or whether they intend to launch an investigation. A request sent to the FTC for comment has not yet received a response.