Google and Google Australia misled consumers about its use of personal location data, according to Australia’s Federal Court in a landmark legal decision.
Consumer watchdog the ACCC took Google to court in October 2019 over the use of location data collected through Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018, in a world-first enforcement action.
Justice Tom Thawley considered three possible scenarios in terms how how consumers interacted with Google in terms of controlling their Google Account settings and location data and concluded that while Google’s conduct would not have misled all reasonable users in the classes identified, “Google’s conduct misled or was likely to mislead some reasonable users within the particular classes identified. The number or proportion of reasonable users who were misled, or were likely to have been misled, does not matter for the purposes of establishing contraventions.”
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.
Users were misled because Google did not inform them that the setting was relevant to the collection of personal location data.
ACCC Chair Rod Sims said the verdict was an important step ensuring digital platforms are up front with consumers about what is happening with their data and how to protect it.
“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,” he said.
“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.
The ACCC is seeking declarations, pecuniary penalties, publications orders, and compliance orders to be determined at a later date.
A Google spokesperson said the company is considering an appeal.
“The court rejected many of the ACCC’s broad claims. We disagree with the remaining findings and are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal,” they said.
We provide robust controls for location data and are always looking to do more – for example we recently introduced auto delete options for Location History, making it even easier to control your data.”