The Safari web browser blocks companies from using cookies to track what web sites people are visiting. Google found a work-around, but this company had to stop using it once the public found out about it.
Safari is the default browser on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac computers. Apple designed it to prevent sites from giving users cookies that could then be read by other websites, as this would allow companies to track the users.
However, Apple made an exception: if a user fills out a form, a site can give the user a cookie that will carry through to other sites. This could be used, for example, to allow someone to sign up for a service that would be available on multiple sites.
Google and other companies took advantage of this exception by creating ads that tricked the web browser into thinking the user had submitted a form, and therefore accept a multi-site cookie without the user’s knowledge. This practice was exposed by the Wall Street Journal reporting on research by Stanford grad student Jonathan Mayer. Mayer said that, in addition to Google, these multi-site cookies were placed surreptitiously by Vibrant Media, Gannett PointRoll, and WPP PLC Media Innovation Group.
As the criticism began to grow, Google released a statement yesterday in which it promised to remove these cookies. The statement also said, “The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”