Google, Safari and the wild Web at war

The day after a Wall Street Journal report that Google and other ad networks bypassed settings on Apple‘s Safari Web browser — which doesn’t allow certain third-party cookies — reactions are mixed. While some tech bloggers are saying, basically, that the WSJ report is blowing this thing out of proportion, one persistent Google critic, the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, has reportedly already asked the FTC to investigate. And Microsoft, which is no friend of Google’s, has also weighed in and blasted its competitor. There’s no getting around it: This looks bad for Google, which lately seems to be putting out one PR fire after another.

The workaround, discovered by a Stanford researcher, allows Google and others to track the Web-browsing habits of Safari users. The WSJ said that Safari — the default browser on iPhones and iPads — is the most widely used browser on mobile devices.

Google, which was quoted in the article, says “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 search giant says it employed the workaround to get its +1 ad buttons to work on Safari, and the WSJ reports that Google discontinued the practice after being contacted by the newspaper.

Longtime search-engine observer John Battelle questions Apple’s motives for blocking tracking by default with its Safari browser. Apple is often criticized for the closed, tightly controlled nature of its platform, and Battelle suggests the do-not-track default in Safari is not a privacy feature. “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,” Battelle writes. However, here we should note that Apple added the do-not-track features to Safari last year after Microsoft did the same with Internet Explorer and Mozilla with Firefox — on the heels of a legislative push for do-not-track features on Web browsers.

Battelle’s larger point: The “sad state of the Internet” given the war between Google, Apple, Facebook and others has led to “shenanigans” including what Google has been caught doing, and we Internet users can probably expect more of the same. In fact, the WSJ report also says some Facebook apps use the same workaround code. Still, says Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, who is also pretty critical of the WSJ report, this latest revelation is “a body blow to Google’s reputation.”

One other key point in the WSJ report is that Google seems to have misrepresented what it was doing, because the Journal says instructions on a Google site on how to avoid tracking when using Safari was removed earlier this week.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based public-advocacy group, has written an open letter to Google: “Internet users worldwide have loved your products for years, and we’ve often praised your stance on free expression and transparency and your efforts to limit government access to users’ information. But when it comes to consumer choice around privacy, your commitment to users has been weaker.” The EFF then goes on to urge Google to commit to offering “do not track” on its Chrome browser. But one would have to be completely naive not to see why Google — which makes a huge bulk of its revenue from ads — isn’t exactly itching to get on this bandwagon.

This latest privacy brouhaha comes less than a month after Google took flak after announcing a new privacy policy. The company characterized the move as a consolidation of the policies of its many offerings under one umbrella; critics took it to mean that Google was turning its back on its famous “don’t be evil” mantra. (See Google’s latest controversial move: updating its privacy policy. What will it think of next?) The European Union recently asked that Google delay rolling out its new policy, which is scheduled to become effective March 1, while it investigates.


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  • Bill Treadway

    Dont care about tracking IF I APPROVE. The default SHOULD BE no tracking. The fact that Google did this surreptitiously it disturbing and, IMHO, illegal. i hope someone sues their butts off. This is an invasion of my privacy since it was done without my knowledge or consent.

    In another vein, my shopping and buying habits belong to ME, not google. If they wish to use them, they need to PAY for the right to do so. Why should those of us who “generate” the data that they use to upcharge advertisers provide information that enriched them for free?

    I think iPad and IPhone users would make an easy class to form… and there is blood in the water

  • Dave Koberstein

    If one turns off 3rd-party cookies in FF or IE, the website can’t turn them back on. Why is it that a website can enable Safari’s 3rd-party cookies?

    Does Safari not have a “No, I really mean turn off 3rd-party cookies” setting? Or is the only setting “turn off 3rd-party cookies unless the website decides to use the legitimate API call to turn them on for me”?

    I’m not a Safari user but this sounds like a Safari flaw.

  • robino

    Irrespective of what anyone thinks should happen, tracking is the default on the web. And it’s worth a lot of money to advertisers.

    While Google is taking a well-deserved hit on this story, Facebook apps used the same work around, according to the article.

    Apple, itself, has been under fire for tracking users, exploiting workers and turning a blind eye to the apps installed on iOS.

    And it’s not just the social media company, Path, who has been uploading iOS users’ address books without users’ knowledge.

    It’s been common knowledge that iOS apps track users via their UDID. A year ago Apple was sued for “knowingly transmitting” user data to third parties that can identify those parties via their UDID, something users cannot disable.

    It wasn’t until August that Apple told developers to stop tracking users by their ID number. But in the next breath Apple said “Instead, create a unique identifier specific to your app”

    Tracking is so prevalent that last year on Black Friday even MALLS tracked your cell phone signals.

    Maybe more attention should be paid to the licensing agreements before installing apps.

  • GoogleBurned

    “While some tech bloggers are saying, basically, that the WSJ report is blowing this thing out of proportion”

    Are you kidding me? Batelle and his excuse makers are essentially saying “well, if Google has to play a little rough to get more eyeballs, so be it!”

    What’s going on over in Mountain View where suddenly Google becomes a company that doesn’t watch every single byte of data, and offers up the excuse of “oh, well, we didn’t know that we’d coded an invisible form that worked around Apple’s privacy protection features”.

    Seriously – Google is the company that’s been caught selling illegal prescription drug ads again and again. Google is the company getting away with leasing airport space for a few bucks a year while leaving NASA in the lurch. The Buzz privacy agreement settlement…it goes on and on with Google’s trust-like behavior and ethical whipsawing.

    Even Android – ‘conceived’ after Eric Schmidt got wind of the iPhone in an Apple board meeting, and generally a miserable failure once people have had to live with it very often due to Google’s “develop and forget” method of leaving updates to the carriers. Google is the company that backfills excuse after excuse about how “they didn’t know”, and “oh, let me fix that now”.

    I guess that with examples like Arrington, tech punditry really is worse than it seems if people like Batelle can manage to make excuses for Google. Does Batelle really buy Google’s excuse that they didn’t know the invisible form worked this way and collected such data? Fer Chrissake – as if Google didn’t watch every single byte of data they collect…what a BS excuse.

    Can we get over the star-struck stage now and see that in the eyes of people who have been watching this situation that Google is as morally and ethically-challenged a company as this valley has ever seen?