Discontinuing a code that bypasses
settings on Apple's Safari browser may not be enough for Google to end the outcry in the latest high-tech privacy scandal.
A bipartisan trio of House members wants the Federal Trade Commission to again probe the search and advertising giant after it was revealed that the hidden code allowed Google to track the sites Safari users visit when they believed they were browsing privately.
And last week an Illinois man filed a federal lawsuit against Google, claiming its actions violate federal wiretapping laws.
Google told us last week that the mischievous code, discovered by a Stanford University computer researcher, Jonathan Mayer and verified by the Wall Street Journal was "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 this type of personalization."
Google stopped using the code, the company said, when it determined that it was enabling cookies, which allow web sites to track visitors for advertisers. It said the link was intended to make sure that personally identifying was not collected.
That explanation doesn't suit Republicans Joe Barton of Texas and Cliff Stearns of Florida and Democrat Cliff Stearns. In a letter to FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz, the trio noted "Google's practices could have a wide sweeping impact because Safari is a major web browser used by millions of Americans. As members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we are interested in any actions the FTC has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google has violated the terms of its consent agreement."
The Safari flap comes on the heels of Google's announcement that it consolidated its terms of service to cover all of its services last month, and after it automatically opted millions of users into its Google Buzz social network last year. In October, Google reached an agreement with the FTC that calls for mandatory privacy audits for the next 20 years and a comprehensive privacy program.
All of which makes the latest flap a case of pretty lousy timing.
Election Year Posturing?
"In essence, Google chose a particularly inopportune time to act stupidly," said technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. "Since Google trades on its reputation for innovation, you'd think the company would be a bit better at avoiding 'mistakes' such as this one."
And the fact that we're in the midst of an election year makes it worse, he said, since Congress likely will push the issue as a way to gain solidarity with voters.
The Safari user who is suing Google was identified by Bloomberg News as Matthew Soble. The suit was filed in Federal District Court in Wilimington, Delaware.
But the suit will hinge on whether Google was the only one exp;oiting the Safari function and whether Google's practice measurably harmed users, said King. There is also the question of what, if anything, Apple is doing to prevent similar exploits.