Or can you? It turns out that Google was tracking the behavior of certain users via cookies while they were using Safari, the default browser on Apple's products. In effect, Google circumvented Safari's terms of usage. From a recent CNN article:
Google wasn't the only one exploiting Safari's loophole. Stanford grad student Jonathan Mayer, who published an extensive technical analysis of it on Friday, found at least three other advertising companies taking advantage of it: Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group and PointRoll. "I think there's quite possibly a deceptive business practice here," Mayer said in an interview with CNN.
Google has overstepped its bounds before, as I point out in The Age of the Platform. Whether Google's actions technically violated Safari's terms of usage is besides the point. Its actions clearly contravened the spirit of Safari's policy.
Dominance is Not Guaranteed in the Age of the Platform
Sure, Google can withstand the PR hit, although it can't like giving more fodder to those who believe that the company is no longer about not being evil. Beyond bad press, these types of discoveries are just bad business. Search engines like DuckDuckGo now pride themselves on offering no-tracking privacy. While their results might not be as relevant as Google's, many people will accept "lesser" results for enhanced privacy.
My message to the top brass at Google: the Internet is not your platform. It's a shared public space of which you are a major player. Remember what got you here. In the Age of the Platform, your long-term relevance and dominance is not guaranteed. Just ask Yahoo!, MySpace, and AOL.