No harm, no foul: Google wins case over browser tracking

A federal judge has thrown out a class action against Google, saying the search giant didn’t harm anyone when it tricked Internet Explorer(s msft) and Apple’s(s aapl) Safari browsers into accepting advertising cookies — even though those browsers’ settings specifically forbid such cookies.

In a Delaware ruling reported by the Wall Street Journal, US District Judge Sue Robinson found Google and two other firms had circumvented the no-advertising settings, but that the consumers were unable to show they had been harmed by the fact the companies collected their data and used it to target ads to them.

News that Google was “hacking” the Safari browser came to light in February of 2011, when a Stanford graduate reported that Google was tricking the browser into accepting cookies; the “trick” worked by disguising advertising-related cookies as functional ones (like those used to remember a log-in), and collecting browser information as the user surfed the internet.

Google’s tactics led to a minor outcry, and in August of 2012, the FTC slapped the company with a $22 million fine, and made it promise that it would not “misrepresent” how it treated privacy settings.

At the time, the browser trick and the FTC action led to renewed debate over “do not track” rules for cookies. The debate has since become less relevant, however, as tech companies move away from cookies in favor of more sophisticated cross-device tracking methods. This week, for instance, Microsoft followed Google’s lead in making plans to replace cookies with other techniques.