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Google Safari privacy violations: Judge may approve $22.5 million settlement

A federal judge said Friday that she's inclined to approve a legal settlement in which Google agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle federal allegations of privacy violations, despite objections from a consumer group that argues the penalty is too weak.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston asked attorneys a few questions during a brief court hearing and said she will issue her ruling later. But she indicated that she doesn't agree with at least some of the legal objections raised by the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog.

The case involves a federal investigation into allegations that Google's advertising service violated the privacy of people who used Apple's Safari Web browser. The Federal Trade Commission had touted the penalty as the largest fine it has ever assessed in a case of this kind.

Attorneys for the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog argued that the amount was a pittance in comparison with the $9.7 billion in profit that Google reported last year.

The advocacy group also objected that the settlement did not require Google to admit wrongdoing in the case, which stems from a Google advertising network's use of software cookies that tracked the Web pages visited by Safari users without their knowledge. Google has said the tracking was inadvertent and that it believed the Safari browser would automatically disable the cookies.

Federal attorneys asked the judge to approve the settlement, calling it a "fair and reasonable" outcome to the case. In a statement referring to the Consumer Watchdog objections, a Google spokesperson said: "We're confident that there is no basis for this challenge."

Consumer Watchdog also argued that the settlement should include a permanent injunction that would give the government perpetual authority to monitor Google's compliance with an earlier court order, in which the search giant agreed not to misrepresent its privacy practices.

The government says it has adequate authority for 20 years under that earlier order, which stemmed from a case in which Google's now-defunct "Buzz" social networking service displayed users' friends and contacts without their permission.

Attorneys for Consumer Watchdog also argued that the settlement in the Safari case is inadequate because it does not force Google to delete any data it acquired from the software cookies, although Google has agreed to disable the cookies themselves.

Google attorney David Kramer, however, said that the data is not useful to Google and added that the company has a practice of "anonymizing" data after nine months.

In court papers, the government said Google's profit from the Safari cookies was no more than $4 million, although Consumer Watchdog argues that the actual figure is much higher.

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