Google Gaffe: How The Latest Google Scandal Underscores A Much Deeper Problem With the Internet

Posted by · February 17, 2012 12:58 pm

Google 的貼牌冰箱(Google refrigerator)The GOOG has been caught red-handed using questionable tracking methods…again. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the search giant was using a “special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users.” To make matters worse for Google—who is already the center of a number of privacy-related controversies—the tracking extended to all iPhone, iPad and Mac users who use Safari, even though the browser is allegedly programmed to block this kind of tracking in its default setting.

Responding to the WSJ expose, Google alleged that the typically business-friendly newspaper was “mischaracterizing” the company’s behavior. However, it’s difficult to believe that any such mischaracterization took place when Google put the kibosh on the questionable tactic as soon as the WSJ directly confronted the company.

The Safari Loophole

Originally detected by Stanford University researcher Jonathan Mayer, Google’s tracking scheme was able to get a hold of temporary tracking cookies that are assigned to users when they use Safari. Once acquired, Google could use these cookies without any detection by users to compile information about online behavior, including Google login information.

In order to avoid having this activity detected by the Apple browser, Google used ads provided through its Doubleclick program to make it appear to the browser as if users were engaging the ads on purpose—enabling Google to put these activity-tracking cookies on user computers and devices. Most notably, this “trick” allowed Google to determine which Safari users surf the Web while they’re logged into their Google accounts.

It should be noted that other companies—ad networks, in particular—have also exploited the same loophole in the Apple browser. However, not all advertisers were pleased with the news once it broke. Officials from AT&T, Apple and the WSJ expressed surprise at the workaround’s existence and were quick to condemn its exploitation by Google and others.

Shared Responsibility

Apple, however, is not without blame in this scandal. As I mentioned above, Safari’s default settings are allegedly set to block the kind of activity that Google was engaged in until the Journal shed a little light on it this morning. However, a response post on John Battelle’s blog reveals that Apple deserves some share of the blame.

Now from what I can tell, the first part of that story is true—Google and many others have figured out ways to get around Apple’s default settings on Safari in iOS—the only browser that comes with iOS, a browser that, in my experience, has never asked me what kind of privacy settings I wanted, nor did it ask if I wanted to share my data with anyone else…Apple assumes that I agree with Apple’s point of view on ‘privacy,’ which, I must say is ridiculous on its face, because the idea of a large corporation…determining in advance what I might want to do with my data is pretty much the opposite of ‘privacy.’

And that’s just it. If one wants to blame Google for circumventing Safari’s privacy settings, one must also question Apple’s unilateral definition of privacy for all of its users, as well as its motive for the meaning it ultimately chose. Was Apple looking out for user privacy, or, as Battelle suggests, is this simply Apple’s way of preventing competition in its own permutation of the Internet? If Apple had asked individual Safari users to determine the level of privacy that they prefer, perhaps Google would not have gone to the great lengths—however shady they were—to obtain user data.

Sharing Battelle’s desire for a free and open Internet—where all devices and browsers put users into the driver’s seat instead of serving up their own limited versions of the Web—I would argue that all parties engaged in this epic quest to own the Internet warrant rebuke.

A Real Information Superhighway

In my mind, the Internet is not all that different from a highway system. The people own it. They choose which cars they want to drive on it. And while those cars have various components that change the experience someone has when they’re driving it, the car is still very much in that person’s control, and the car is on the same highway as all the other cars. The same exits along the highway are available to the person driving a Ford Focus as are available to a BMW 5-Series.

While the person driving the Ford might have to pull out a restaurant guide and an old paper map to locate nearby cuisine whereas the driver of the BMW can perform the same task using an onboard navigation system, both drivers are still driving on the same highway and are still looking at the same exact exit numbers. The restaurants don’t own the highway system, the cars that drive on it, or the people that drive them. They can only do their best to make themselves visible to passersby and make quality food that people want.

The Internet is the highway. Computers and devices are the cars. And operating systems and browsers are the features of the car that make the experience more or less pleasant than others. But that experience shouldn’t completely change the landscape of the highway, the speed limit, or make it so that you can only visit select destinations. If you ask me, a highway system that only exits to four or five chain restaurants—restaurants that have become so similar from trying to defeat each other that it’s hard to tell the difference—is not a highway worth driving on.

  • Matt

    Safari is unlike the other browsers in that it doesn’t allow 3rd party cookies by default unless the user directly interacts with the iframe that is trying to set the cookies (by clicking, for example). All other browsers allow setting these cookies without interaction. So yes, maybe Google used a workaround to make Safari act more like all the other browsers, but that is hardly call for outrage or saying Google is spying on users.