Google Snoops Sarari - UK Sues Google

(Todd R. Weiss  eWeek) Google is being sued by a group of U.K. users for "snooping" on their activities while they were using the Apple Safari Web browser.

Google, six months after being fined $22.5 million by U.S. regulators for bypassing privacy settings on Apple’s Safari Web browser, is now being sued by a group of U.K.-based residents for allegedly "snooping" on their online search activities while they were using Safari.

The lawsuit echoes a similar one filed early last year by Safari users in the United States. The court action in the U.K., which does not specify how many people are represented, was announced Jan. 27 by British law firm Olswang.

The U.K. lawsuit will seek damages from Google "for undermining the security settings on Apple's Safari browser to track online usage covertly," according to the statement.

The group also started a Facebook page, "Safari Users Against Google's Secret Tracking," to publicize its efforts as part of the worldwide Data Privacy Day, which is being celebrated Jan. 28.

"Google has a responsibility to consumers and should be accountable for the trust placed in them," Dan Tench, an attorney representing the plaintiffs for Olswang, said in a statement. "We hope that they will take this opportunity to give Safari users a proper explanation about what happened, to apologize and, where appropriate, compensate the victims of their intrusion."

The lawsuit aims at Google's use of tracking cookies, which the plaintiffs allege had been "secretly installed by Google on the computers and mobile devices of people using Apple's Safari internet browser."

In a statement, 74-year-old Judith Vidal-Hall, one of the plaintiffs, said she joined the fight because she opposes Google's data use policies.

"Google claims it does not collect personal data but doesn't say who decides what information is 'personal,'" Vidal-Hall said in the statement. "Whether something is private or not should be up to the internet surfer, not Google. We are best placed to decide, not them."

The lawsuit argues that Google "designed a code to circumvent privacy settings in order to deposit the cookies on computers in order to provide user-targeted advertising."

The violations came when "the claimants thought that cookies were being blocked on their devices because of Safari's strict default privacy settings and separate assurances being given by Google at the time," according to the statement. The problem was that the cookies were not being blocked, allege the plaintiffs.

In early 2012, Google faced a similar legal situation in the United States when it was sued by Safari users in Missouri and Illinois over the search giant's placement of online ad cookies in Safari. The move sidestepped control settings intended to protect users of Safari.

n July 2012, Google reached a record $22.5 million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to resolve the charges that Google bypassed the Safari browser privacy settings. The settlement was criticized by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry group, in a statement as "a dangerously overbroad precedent that will chill Internet innovation and hurt online startups.

The FTC charged that for several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google's DoubleClick advertising network. It charged that Google placed the cookies on consumers' computers in many cases by circumventing the Safari browser's default cookie-blocking setting.

Placing the cookies on the computers of Safari browsers violated the terms of an October 2011 settlement between Google and the FTC over deceptive practices related to the launch of Google Buzz, the late, unlamented original attempt by Google to compete with Facebook in the social media space. Google later abandoned Buzz and went to work on its successor, Google +, which launched in June 2011.

The Safari suit is at least the second filed against Google in the U.K. this month.

Earlier in January, Google was sued by the British shopping comparison Website FoundEm, for allegedly helping its own business by steering customers away from competitors in search results.

That lawsuit surfaced just a week after the FTC cleared Google of similar conduct in the United States, and as European regulators continued to conduct their own investigation. In the United States, Google essentially received a hand slap from the FTC after a 19-month investigation into allegations that the company had been manipulating its search algorithms to favor Google's results over competitors.

The FTC ruled that not enough evidence existed to prove allegations from some competitors that Google had manipulated its search algorithms to harm competing Websites and unfairly promote its own competing vertical properties. Instead, the company entered into a voluntary agreement with the FTC to change some of its other business practices.

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