Internet giant Google has found itself in a middle of a potential PR nightmare following a Wall Street Journalarticle this morning. Tentatively titled “Google’s iPhone Tracking”, the article asserts that “Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers” in order to follow iPhone users even after they explicitly set Safari’s privacy controls to disable such tracking. According to authors Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-Devries, Google used “special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users”. Google apparently disabled the problematic code after being contacted by the paper.
Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer found out that although mobile Safari’s default setting blocks cookies from third parties and advertisers, Google and advertising companies Media Innovation Group, Vibrant Media and Gannett PointRoll fooled mobile Safari into thinking “a person was submitting an invisible form to Google”, letting them in turn install a tracking cookie on users’ iPhones and PCs without their consent.
Once a cookie has been installed, a Safari glitch allows for subsequent cookies to be added. Both Google and Apple issued statements following the report…
Apple told the Journal it is “working to put a stop”to this bypassing of Safari’s privacy settings. Google on its part argued in a written statement to the paper that “We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled”, adding it is important to stress “that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information”. Marketing Land’sDanny Sullivan acknowledges that “Google and many others have figured out ways to get around Apple’s default settings on Safari in iOS”, arguing Apple is to partly blame as the browser “broke with common web practice”.
As a result, Google could exploit tricks to force advertising tracking cookies upon iPhone users. Sullivan speculates Apple might have purposefully set default privacy settings in mobile Safari against third-party cookies so as to defend its own agenda, arguing Apple aims to own iPhone users and control their experience.
Apple, of course, operates its own advertising network built from their $275 million purchase of mobile advertising experts Quatro Wireless in 2010. Following the initial uptake, iAd has been losing share amid high commitments for mobile campaigns. Apple last February cut those commitments from $1 million to $500,000, then to $300,000 last July and further down this month to as little as $100,000. IDC estimated iAd’s 2011 mobile share of U.S. mobile display-ad revenue at 15 percent versus 24 percent for Google’s AdMob and AdSense platforms and 17 percent for mobile advertising company Millennial Media.