For Violating Users' Privacy, Google Pays FTC Fine of Approximately 0 Percent of Revenues

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 9 2012 2:14 PM

For Violating Users' Privacy, Google Pays FTC Fine of Approximately 0 Percent of Revenues

Eric Schmidt
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt at an antitrust hearing in 2011.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

To the Federal Trade Commission, it’s an unprecedented crackdown and proof that the federal government won’t tolerate big Internet companies toying with Americans’ online privacy.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

To Google, of course, it’s pocket change.

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The FTC today confirmed earlier reports that Google has agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle charges that it misled users of Apple’s Safari browsers about how it was tracking them. Safari’s default privacy settings prevent sites from installing cookies that track users’ online activity in order to serve them personalized advertisements. But that’s how Google makes its billions, so it went ahead and secretly tracked them anyway.

Now it is paying the price. And the price, it turns out, equates to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the company’s annual revenues—or roughly the amount of money the Mountain View colossus rakes in every few hours.

“The record-setting penalty in this matter sends a clear message to all companies under an FTC privacy order,” proclaimed FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “No matter how big or small, all companies must abide by FTC orders against them and keep their privacy promises to consumers, or they will end up paying many times what it would have cost to comply in the first place.”

In fact, Google's penalty is equivalent to a $25 fine for someone making $50,000 a year. That’s about half the cost of your average parking ticket.

And that’s the bad news for Google in this settlement. The good news is that it doesn’t have to admit any wrongdoing, a concession that one dissenting FTC commissioner called “inexplicable.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.