Google Inc. has been fined $22.5 million by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for ignoring the privacy settings of customers using Apple’s Safari browser.
The staggering sum would be the largest penalty ever levied on a single company by the FTC.
But, with Google reporting a net income of $2.89 billion in the first quarter of this year, it would take just over 17 hours for the company to earn the amount to pay off the fine.
The fine was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which cited officials briefed on the settlement terms.
The charges involve Google’s use of special computer code, or “cookies”, to trick Apple’s Safari browser so Google could monitor users that had blocked such tracking, the newspaper said.
The tracking, which occurred on computers and iPhones, would have allowed the search engine to collect information on users’ preferences and search choices.
But Google disabled the code after being contacted by the Wall Street Journal, which first covered the story in February.
Staff at Google told the publication that tracking Apple users was inadvertent and did not cause any harm to consumers.
“The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies,” Google said.
But the company’s practices sparked an investigation by the Trade Commission into whether it had violated an agreement signed last year.
In the 20-year agreement, Google said it would not misrepresent its privacy practices to users, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The penalty for violating this agreement is $16,000 per violation per day.
The code was spotted by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer. Advisers agreed that scores of ads on websites installed the tracking code.
Google also faces potential sanctions from other governments. It is being investigated by the European Union to determine if the company complies with Europe’s stricter privacy laws, the Wall Street Journal reported.