ACCC takes Google to court for allegedly misleading consumers over location data

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has commenced court proceedings against Google for allegedly misleading consumers about location data collected, kept and used.

The statement of claim, filed today in the Federal Court, alleges that Google represented to Android users since at least January 2017 that “it would not obtain data about their location, or that where such data was obtained it would only be used for the user’s own purposes”.

“However, Google did obtain and retain such data and used that data for Google’s purposes,” the statement of claim reads, which, if proven, could see Google breaching Australian Consumer Law.

The representations were made on screen when consumers set up a Google account, and accessed the settings of that account, on Android devices.

“We are taking court action against Google because we allege that as a result of these on-screen representations, Google has collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said.

The settings labelled ‘Location History’ and ‘Web & App Activity’ both had to be switched off in order for Google to not collect, keep and use location data. The ACCC alleges Google misled consumers about this, leading them to believe that the setting called ‘Location History’ was the only one that affected whether Google collected and used the data.

A version of the description of the Location History and Web & App Activity settings shown to consumers setting up a Google Account on their Android mobile device between 30 April 2018 and 19 December 2018

“Our case is that consumers would have understood as a result of this conduct that by switching off their ‘Location History’ setting, Google would stop collecting their location data, plain and simple,” Sims explained.

“We allege that Google misled consumers by staying silent about the fact that another setting also had to be switched off. Many consumers make a conscious decision to turn off settings to stop the collection of their location data, but we allege that Google’s conduct may have prevented consumers from making that choice.”

The watchdog is also alleging that from mid to late last year, Google represented that the only way consumers could stop the tech giant from collecting, keeping and using their location data was to stop using Google services like Google Search and Google Maps. This could actually be achieved by switching off the two relevant settings, the ACCC say.

Google, however, is planning to defend the allegations.

“We are currently reviewing the details of these allegations. We continue to engage with the ACCC and intend to defend this matter,” a Google spokesperson told Mumbrella.

The court action comes just months after the ACCC released its digital platforms report following an inquiry into Facebook and Google.

“Transparency and inadequate disclosure issues involving digital platforms and consumer data were a major focus of our Digital Platforms Inquiry, and remain one of the ACCC’s top priorities,” Sims added.

The ACCC Digital Platform Final Report was handed down in July

Shadow Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, commended the ACCC for taking action, since its responsibility is to “ensure consumers are protected, particularly in this day and age”.

“The average person would be astounded at the level and range of data digital platforms like Google have about them,” Rowland said.

 “Mobile towers, Wi-Fi hotspots and apps like Google Maps bring great convenience to our lives. Let’s not kid ourselves, they also track our location and interactions, and this data is being monetised.

 “It’s in everyone’s interest that consumers make informed choices about whether their data is collected and used.”

The ACCC wants the court to impose a fine against Google and require it to publish corrective notices and establish a compliance program.


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