Watchdog launches court proceedings against Google over the use of consumer data to improve its advertising performance

Google allegedly misled Australian consumers in order to obtain more personal information for the use in targeted advertising, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

The industry watchdog has launched Federal Court proceedings against the tech giant, claiming it misled consumers by not informing them or gaining explicit consent about changes to its platform in 2016 which saw it combine personal information from their accounts with data from their activity on non-Google sites.

The ACCC alleges Google changed how consumer’s data would be packaged without appropriate approvals [click to enlarge]

This information, complete with personal data, was used by Google to improve the commercial performance of its advertising business, according to the watchdog. The proceedings do not allege any violation of privacy laws.

The ACCC also alleges that Google misled consumers about a related change to its privacy policy. Chair Rod Sims said Google did not actively pursue consent from its users to access data in this way.

“We are taking this action because we consider Google misled Australian consumers about what it planned to do with large amounts of their personal information, including internet activity on websites not connected to Google,” Sims said.

“Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis. This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites. It then used this information to serve up highly targeted advertisements without consumers’ express informed consent,” Sims said.

“We allege that Google did not obtain explicit consent from consumers to take this step.”

“The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits.”

“The ACCC considers that consumers effectively pay for Google’s services with their data, so this change introduced by Google increased the “price” of Google’s services, without consumers’ knowledge,” Sims said.

Millions of accounts are thought to have been impacted from 28 June 2016 until at least December 2018. During this time, Google account holders were prompted to click ‘I agree’ to a pop-up notification from Google that explained the changes and how the data would be combined.

The Google notification [click to enlarge]

Before June 2016, Google only collected and used, for advertising purposes, personally identifiable information about Google account users’ activities on Google-owned services and apps like Google Search and Youtube.

After June 2016, when consumers clicked on the “I agree” notification, Google began to collect and store a much wider range of personally identifiable information about the online activities of Google account holders, including their use of third-party sites and apps not owned by Google.

Previously, this additional data had been stored separately from a user’s Google account.

The news was covered positively at the time of the changes, with outlets saying it gave consumers new power over the way the tech giant used their data.

The ACCC claims that the combination of personal data with the new additional information gave Google a valuable asset to use in its targeted advertising, including through its Google Ad Manager and Google Marketing Platform brands.

The ACCC alleges that the “I agree” notification was misleading, because consumers could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used, and so did not – and could not – give informed consent.

“We believe that many consumers, if given an informed choice, may have refused Google permission to combine and use such a wide array of their personal information for Google’s own financial benefit,” Sims said.

A Google spokesperson says the platform strongly denies the allegations from the ACCC and insists users were given ample opportunity to not consent to the changes.

“In June 2016, we updated our ads system and associated user controls to match the way people use Google products: across many different devices. The changes we made were optional and we asked users to consent via prominent and easy-to-understand notifications.

“If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged. We have cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation into this matter. We strongly disagree with their allegations and intend to defend our position,” said the spokesperson.

Google users are able to update what information they provide the tech platform through tools on their accounts. The changes in 2016 allowed Google to control ads across devices and bulk apply opt-outs or other preferences across all linked devices and screens.

The ACCC also alleges that Google updated its privacy policy in 2016 to remove a statement which claimed it would not combine DoubleClick cookie information with identifiable data, replacing it with one which said personal information could be combined with user data depending on account settings.


The updated privacy policy [click to enlarge]

“Google made a clear representation about how it would protect users’ privacy. The ACCC alleges that Google made changes without obtaining the explicit consent it had promised consumers it would obtain before altering how it protected their private information,” Sims said.


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