Google has agreed to pay a record $22.5-million civil penalty to settle charges that it bypassed Apple users' privacy settings to track their online activities, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced on Thursday.
The settlement is part of the FTC's ongoing efforts to make sure companies live up to the privacy promises they make to consumers, and is the largest penalty the government agency has ever obtained for a violation of a Commission order, the FTC said in a statement.
The FTC also requires Google to disable all the tracking software it had said it would not place on consumers' computers.
The charges and the fine by the FTC came after reports in February that Google made an end run around a privacy setting in Apple's Safari browser, the default browser for iPhone, iPad, iPod and Macintosh users, in order to track users' online activities.
It was found by a graduate student at Stanford University and first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Google has said the tracking was inadvertent and caused no harm to Safari users. But the FTC believed that the Internet search giant violated a deal it reached with federal regulators last October, in which the FTC "bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations."
"The record setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order," said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC, in a statement.
"No matter how big or small, all companies must abide by FTC orders against them and keep their privacy promises to consumers, or they will end up paying many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place."
In an email statement to the U.S. media, Google said it "set the highest standards of privacy and security" for its users. The search giant added that the FTC investigation is focused on a web page in 2009, two years before it reached the "future privacy misrepresentations" deal with the agency in 2011.
"We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple's browsers," said Google.
According to the FTC, cookies are small pieces of computer text that are used to collect information from computers and can be used to serve targeted ads to consumers.
By placing a tracking cookie on a user's computer, an advertising network can collect information about the user's web- browsing activities and use that information to serve online ads targeted to the user's interests or for other purposes.
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