Google misled consumers about collection and use of location data

The Federal Court has found that Google LLC and Google Australia Pty Ltd (together, Google) misled consumers about personal location data collected through Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018, in a world-first enforcement action brought by the ACCC.

“This is an important victory for consumers, especially anyone concerned about their privacy online, as the Court’s decision sends a strong message to Google and others that big businesses must not mislead their customers,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.

“Today’s decision is an important step to make sure digital platforms are up front with consumers about what is happening with their data and what they can do to protect it.”

The Court ruled that when consumers created a new Google Account during the initial set-up process of their Android device, Google misrepresented that the ‘Location History’ setting was the only Google Account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location. In fact, another Google Account setting titled ‘Web & App Activity’ also enabled Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default.

The Court also found that when consumers later accessed the ‘Location History’ setting on their Android device during the same time period to turn that setting off, they were also misled because Google did not inform them that by leaving the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting switched on, Google would continue to collect, store and use their personally identifiable location data.

Similarly, between 9 March 2017 and 29 November 2018, when consumers later accessed the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting on their Android device, they were misled because Google did not inform them that the setting was relevant to the collection of personal location data.

The Court also found that Google’s conduct was liable to mislead the public.

“We are extremely pleased with the outcome in this world-first case. Between January 2017 and December 2018, consumers were led to believe that ‘Location History’ was the only account setting that affected the collection of their personal location data, when that was simply not true,” Mr Sims said.

“Companies that collect information must explain their settings clearly and transparently so consumers are not misled. Consumers should not be kept in the dark when it comes to the collection of their personal location data.”

The Court dismissed the ACCC’s allegations about certain statements Google made about the methods by which consumers could prevent Google from collecting and using their location data, and the purposes for which personal location data was being used by Google.

The ACCC is seeking declarations, pecuniary penalties, publications orders, and compliance orders. This will be determined at a later date.

“In addition to penalties, we are seeking an order for Google to publish a notice to Australian consumers to better explain Google’s location data settings in the future. This will ensure that consumers can make informed choices about whether certain Google settings that personal collect location data should be enabled,” Mr Sims said.

Background:

Google LLC is a multinational company incorporated in the United States with its headquarters in Mountain View, California. It is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. Google Australia Pty Ltd is a subsidiary of Google LLC and conducts certain aspects of Google LLC’s business in Australia, including the distribution of Pixel phones.

The ACCC instituted proceedings against Google LLC and Google Australia Pty Ltd in October 2019.

Note:

If Android phone users want to stop Google collecting personally identifiable location information, they may do so by switching off the ‘Location’ setting in their Google Account as well as the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting. Consumers can delete personal data that Google has already collected about them through their Google Account.

The Federal Court found that a number of representations published by Google LLC to Australian consumers between January 2017 and December 2018 were false or misleading and that Google LLC engaged in misleading or deception conduct, in contravention of the Australian Consumer Law.

Examples include:

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