Last week, Jonathan Mayer, a law and computer science graduate student at Stanford University, posted information identifying four companies that place trackable cookies into Safari, among them Google. His blog post and a subsequent story about it in the Wall Street Journal set off a flurry of media coverage condemning the Web giant. The news could lead to a new fight over privacy for the company.

Mayer explained on his blog that while most Web browsers provide some sort of third-party cookie blocking privacy feature as an option, Safari’s cookie blocker is enabled by default. But after research, he found that Google, along with advertising companies Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group and PointRoll, designed code that lets them circumvent Safari’s privacy settings and write cookies to Safari. Emma Woollacott, a blogger for TG Daily, characterized the practice as essentially “‘tricking’ Safari to bypass security settings and track iPhone and iPad users’ locations through cookies.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Google quickly shut down the code after the publication contacted them.

Rachel Whetstone, senior vice president for communications and public policy at Google, told IDG News Service that the Wall Street Journal had mischaracterized the situation, saying that the code does not track users, but that it does unintentionally allow “additional Google Web advertising cookies to be installed on users’ phones, against users’ wishes.”

Of course, even if the cookies aren’t tracking user habits, it will hardly appease privacy advocates, who have long criticized Google for lax or misleading privacy policies. In an FTC settlement last March, Google agreed to strict new privacy rules and to submit to independent audits for 20 years to prove compliance. That settlement was related to “deceptive tactics” used to recruit Gmail users to the now-defunct Google Buzz and publish lists of people users emailed with most often. IDG News stated that violations of that settlement could lead to fines of $11,000 per incident.

This latest Google privacy issue created an outpouring of condemnation from privacy champions and Google competitors. Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology told IDG News that Google’s move was “incredibly stupid” and suggested that the FTC would again get involved. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Ryan Gavin, general manager for Internet Explorer Business and Marketing, took the news as an opportunity to knock Google in a blog post, saying, “This type of tracking by Google is not new. The novelty here is that Google apparently circumvented the privacy protections built into Apple’s Safari browser in a deliberate, and ultimately, successful fashion.”

What do you think of this latest controversy of Google’s privacy policies? Does the company deserve the criticism and a possible FTC investigation?

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