Cookiegate Another Privacy Black Eye For Google

Call it “Cookiegate” — or “Safarigate” perhaps. Late last night we got the Wall Street Journal’s piece: “Google’s iPhone Tracking: Web Giant, Others Bypassed Apple Browser Settings for Guarding Privacy.” Danny covered the article and its claims extensively at Marketing Land. This morning there’s an expanding debate about whether the WSJ mischaracterized Google’s behavior unfairly or whether the company has in fact been caught with its hand in the cookie jar — as it were.

To recap: Google and other ad networks (i.e., Gannett’s PointRoll) were discovered circumventing mobile Safari’s default “no third party cookies” settings. The WSJ characterized it as “tricking” Safari. As a practical matter Google was trying to make its +1 buttons work on iOS. The company was quoted in the WSJ article itself saying that nothing sinister was intended:

The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes this controversy warrants a big “mea culpa” from Google and justifies “do not track” options for users. The UK’s Daily Mail describes Google’s activity as tantamount to “spying on iPhone owners.”

John Battelle defends Google (and decries Apple’s privacy “paternalism”), saying the company was merely restoring “normal web practice”:

In short, Apple’s mobile version of Safari broke with common web practice,  and as a result, it broke Google’s normal approach to engaging with consumers. Was Google’s “normal approach” wrong? Well, I suppose that’s a debate worth having – it’s currently standard practice and the backbone of the entire web advertising ecosystem –  but the Journal doesn’t bother to go into those details. One can debate whether setting cookies should happen by default – but the fact is, that’s how it’s done on the open web.

It’s fair to say the story is more complex than what was originally reported by the WSJ. The central problem is that most consumers have little understanding of the intricacies of online advertising, cookie tracking and how to manage the process. And it’s very challenging to educate them on these topics. Indeed, most people never change default settings on their computers or their phones, which is why these “default search” deals are so valuable and coveted in part.

There are numerous surveys, however, that argue consumers are concerned about privacy and mobile privacy in particular. The degree of concern varies by age, situation and how the question is framed. But the concern is there. For example, a February 2011 survey from TRUSTe and Harris showed that the majority were concerned about mobile “tracking” by third parties:

The vast majority of survey respondents (98%) believe that privacy is an important issue when using a mobile device and they want more transparency and choice over the personal information mobile apps and websites collect and share, especially as it relates to targeted advertising and geo-location data. Additionally, more than 1 in 3 of consumers (38%) identified privacy as their number one concern when using mobile applications, followed by security (26%) and identity tracking (19%).

Source: Harris-TRUSTe (2/11, n=1,000 US adults)

Apple’s mobile Safari default is to block cookies from other than the site being visited. This was a decision Apple made on behalf of its users without “consulting” with them. EFF believes it’s the right choice. Battelle says it breaks with “web practice.” My guess based on the various survey data I’ve seen is that most users would side with Apple on this one.

Whether or not Cookiegate “has legs” (and members of Congress start calling for more investigations), it’s yet another PR misstep and black eye for Google around privacy. It looks especially bad or “hypocritical” in light of a high-profile campaign Google was recently running on websites like the NY Times about privacy and user data. The campaign tries to educate and reassure users that their data are safe with Google.

Google has sought to position itself as a guardian of user privacy. Indeed, last year Google specifically said it was going the extra mile to respect and give users control over mobile privacy. But a growing string of controversies, including Google’s recent announcement about the consolidation of its privacy policies into one, has rendered that claim hollow for many people.

Rather than scheming or conscious, unethical behavior on Google’s part, I tend to see this misstep as a function of arrogance or insensitivity. But the growing number of privacy controversies is becoming problem and contributing to a perception that Google needs to be reined in.

During the nearly simultaneous Kenya and Search Plus Your World uproars I wrote that people are increasingly inclined to leap to conclusions about Google based on their fundamental beliefs about whether the company is good or “evil.” More and more they project on to the Google ink blot whatever they want to see.

It’s not clear that any of the privacy issues described above have impacted “ordinary users” or their perceptions of Google. So far there isn’t really any evidence. But if these missteps keep happening Google’s reputation will certainly suffer with the public.

Postscript: See our follow-up, No Surprise: Congress, Consumer & Privacy Groups Want Google To Explain Safari Privacy Snafu

Related Entries

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Critics | Google: Privacy | Legal: Privacy | Legal: Regulation | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Andrew Goodman

    Good coverage, Greg. For better for worse, the clear sense I get directly from Google (in the form of new product rollouts, explicit goals set, etc.), is that they have zero intention of being “reined in”. Indeed, they plan to double down.

    Google sees many of the limitations on their ability to collect data for accurate targeting (etc.) as simply barriers to be busted. Recall the “whoops, Street View was really collecting IP information, sorry it was an accident” caper.

    Google won’t be reined in in this regard. Not voluntarily. Only government has enough clout to limit what the company is doing. Private companies and individuals do not. [Yeah sure, users can opt out of everything. ;)]

    In the past, they were quite far ahead of competitors in terms of how well they understood the zeitgeist of user appetites for intrusion and interruption.

    But either something has shifted, or it was always the case that Google always had enormous capacity for intrusion and was judicious in how it made use of that.

    Google’s self-image has always been ambitious in that it believed somehow there was such a thing as being a private very large company that was nonetheless “benevolently omniscient”. There is enough Dr. Evil in all of this now to give us all pause.

    The media takes a huge slice of the blame here. Multiple players are always beneficial for consumer choice, but as soon as some slightly lesser player (RIM) lags a bit in terms of convenience or financial performance, let the trashing begin. What we forget is that such companies offer us choices to avoid the monolithic, totalitarian rein of any one player.

  • Greg Sterling

    Thanks Andrew. The “beg for forgiveness” attitude prevails over at Facebook as well. It may be the Europeans to really erect barriers to the strategy that Google and others are pursuing with tracking and targeting. We’ll see. But too many transgressions and you will see government action.

  • Greg Sterling

    See also this article I wrote:

  • Andrew Goodman

    There’s a remarkably simple action that millions of people today could take to protect themselves, if that’s something they wanted to do (in light of your other article): simply say no to Android.

    The price paid for all the convenience users seek may be invisible to most, but it’s real.

    I’ll take the stairs.

  • Durant Imboden

    Maybe the best solution would be for Google to block Safari users, or to serve Safari users a page that says their browser isn’t compatible with industry standards. Let Apple try to convince its users that Apple are the good guys and Google is the Evil Empire.

  • Winooski

    I’m glad that Greg Sterling and Third Door Media are keeping their eyes on these types of issues, but I can’t help but feel that these behemoth corporations are slugging it out for the prize of being the one that exploits consumers’ data the most.

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