Google faces measly $22.5m fine in Safari privacy gaffe

Google is likely to pay $22.5m to settle its privacy argument with the FTC, the largest such fine ever imposed, but a drop in the ocean for the search giant. The penalty – which amounts to $16,000 per violation per day – is over Google's decision to ignore Safari browser users' privacy settings around cookies, and will be officially announced soon according to the WSJ's sources; however, it also highlights the comparative limitations of such fines, with Google on average making $22.5m in the space of five hours last year.

That disparity between what the US Federal Trade Commission can levy and what might represent a legitimate threat to Google's bank balance has prompted frustration from privacy activists. With the $22.5m figure such a small portion of the company's yearly profit, it is hoped that it will instead serve to highlight the flippant attitude Google took to users' privacy preferences.

At fault was how Google circumnavigated Safari preferences to block tracking, taking advantage of a loophole in the system that allowed the company to track users between sites. Subsequent investigation discovered Internet Explorer users were also being affected.

Back in March, Google admitted it had done wrong, but argued that it had not intended to track web users in that way. "We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. We created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google's servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for personalized ads and other content" the company said in a statement.

"However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser" Google continued. "We will of course cooperate with any officials who have questions. But it's important to remember that we didn't anticipate this would happen, and we have been removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."

According to the sources, the proposed settlement was thrashed out over the past few weeks, though it still awaits approval by FTC commissioners. That could see it modified before being publicly revealed.