ACCC opens new Google court fight

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The ACCC is taking Google to court again, this time over its expanded collection and use of personal information for targeted advertising, as the competition watchdog’s crusade against the tech giants continues.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched Federal Court proceedings against Google over the tech company’s linking of Google users’ account information with data collected from their activity on other websites not run by Google.

It is alleging that Google misled its users and did not properly obtain their consent for this combination of data, which allowed for more targeted advertising to be displayed by users.

Court fight: The ACCC is having another crack at Google data hoovering ops

ACCC chair Rod Sims said this amounted to an increase in the price of using Google for users, as they pay for the service with their own personal information.

“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,” Mr Sims said.

“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.”

It’s the second time in the last year that the ACCC has sued Google, with the competition watchdog also launching legal proceedings against the company in October last year over the way it collects, keeps and uses the personal location data of its users.

The most recent case revolves around changes Google made in 2016 to combine the personal information in a Google users’ account with information about these users’ activities on non-Google websites that used the company’s advertising technology, DoubleClick, to display ads.

This had the effect of linking the users’ names and personally identifiable data with their non-Google activity online, with this info previously kept separate. This combined dataset was then used by Google to improve their targeted advertising.

A consent form presented to users from June 2016, asking them to agree to the changes, was misleading, the ACCC alleges. The form announced “new features” that gave users “more control over the data Google collects and how it’s used”, and said it would be easier to review and control this data.

This “I agree” message was presented to millions of Australians with Google accounts, the ACCC said.

This message was misleading, and users were not given the chance to provide informed consent to these changes in data control, the ACCC said.

“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,” Mr Sims said.

Updates to Google’s privacy settings at the time claimed it would “not reduce your rights under the Privacy Policy without your explicit consent”, which was another misleading statement, the competition watched alleged.

“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,” Mr Sims said.

Google has already signalled that it will be fighting the allegations made by the Australian competition watchdog.

“In June 2016, we updated our ads system and associated user controls to match the way people use Google products: across many different services,” a Google spokesperson said.

“The changes we made were optional and we asked users to consent via prominent and easy-to-understand notification. 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.”

The ACCC has ramped up its fight against Google and other large global tech companies in recent years, most prominently through its inquiry into digital platforms. The final report from this inquiry was handed to government last year and recommended a number of significant reforms, some of which are being rolled out this year.

The competition watchdog’s case against Google which it brought forward last year alleged the tech company engaged in “misleading conduct and made false or misleading representations” to users over its collection of location data.

This related to users with Android devices, and claimed Google failed to properly disclose that both the “location history” and “web and app activity” options had to be turned off if a user didn’t want to be tracked.

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