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Another One of Google’s "Broken Promises"

More than a year after Google reached a deal to pay a record Federal Trade Commission fine of $22.5 million the search giant has reached a similar agreement with 37 states for $17 million for circumventing privacy settings on Safari Web browsers.

Google bypassed user settings to block cookies, or small pieces of code that allow companies and advertisers to know a consumer’s Internet browsing history. New York Attorney General Schneiderman said:

“Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them. By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust.”

This settlement begs the question: how much is the trust of consumers’ worth?

The search giant has repeatedly violated legal obligations and agreements with governments, not to mention the trust of its users. A few recent examples:

  • Google signed a 20-year consent decree with the FTC agreeing not to misrepresent its practices to consumers after its Google Buzz launch.
  • Google reached a $500 million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for knowingly enabling the illegal importation and sale of pharmaceuticals through keyword advertising.
  • Google’s Street View project collected personal information from home wireless networks without notifying users or even asking their permission.
  • The Federal Communications Commission fined Google $25,000 for obstructing and delaying the agency’s Street View investigation.

A few days ago, Danny Sullivan published a piece titled “Google’s Broken Promises & Who’s Running The Search Engine?” chronicling the company’s reversals on promises not to include paid links in Google Shopping and not to sell banner ads atop Google search results on its homepage. So once again, Google shows it often does not keep its word to users or government officials. And it seems the company is  would rather break agreements first and risk paying for its violations later rather earning the trust of users and doing right by them. After all, the fines often amount to a rounding error of Google’s ad-based revenue, which amounted to $15 billion in the second quarter of 2013 alone.

Google’s record makes clear that governments and consumers should think twice before trusting Google to meet its legal obligations or keep its promises on important matters such as competing fairly and respecting consumer privacy rights.