The Australian competition watchdog is suing Google over the way the tech giant collects, keeps and uses the personal location data of its users.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against Google and its Australian subsidiary, alleging that the search engine and advertising company engaged in “misleading conduct and made false or misleading representations” to users over its collection of location data.
The case relates to on-screen representations made to Android mobile phone or tablet users from January 2017 to late last year.
The case will allege that Google failed to adequately disclose to consumers that both the “location history” and “web & app activity” options had to be turned off if a user didn’t want their location history to be collected, kept and used by Google.
It has claimed that most users would have believed that by turning off just “location history” then their location data would not be used by Google. And while this option is turned off by default, the “web & app activity” option is turned on by default, allowing Google to still collect and use this personal location data.
The court action is another major step by the ACCC in cracking down against the biggest tech companies in the world, following its landmark Digital Platforms Inquiry, which recommended a series of legislative actions against Google.
The competition watchdog is arguing that Android users would have “incorrectly believed that location history was the only setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used data about their location”.
If the web & app activity option was switched on then Google would continue to collect the location data and use it for various commercial purposes focusing on advertising.
“We consider that because of Google’s failure to disclose this use of data, consumers were and still are deprived of the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether to share their personal location data with Google,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said.
“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’ locations without them making an informed choice.”
In a short statement, a Google spokesperson said the company intends to fight back against the claims.
“We are currently reviewing the details of these allegations. We continue to engage with the ACC and intend to defend this matter,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.
In a highly detailed statement regarding the court action, the ACCC included a series of screenshots of the messages showed to Android users when deciding whether to turn these options on or off.
“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,” Mr Sims said.
“We allege that Google misled consumers by staying silent about the fact that another setting also had to be switched off. Many consumers made 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 ACCC is seeking penalties, declarations and orders requiring the publication of corrective notices and the establishment of a compliance program from Google and Google Australia.
The collection and use of personal data was a central topic in the ACCC’s recent Digital Platforms Inquiry.
In its final report to government, the competition watchdog recommended that the definition of personal information in privacy legislation be updated to include location data, and for notification and consent requirements to be strengthened to allow users to make informed decisions.
The federal government is expected to announce its response to these recommendations and the broader report by the end of the year.