Google to pay $40m for “deceptive and unfair” location tracking practices

Google is going to pay $39.9 million to Washington State to put to rest a lawsuit about its location tracking practices which has been in play since last year. Google was accused of “misleading consumers” by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. From the AG press release:

Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced Google will pay $39.9 million to Washington state as a result of his office’s lawsuit over misleading location tracking practices. Google will also implement a slate of court-ordered reforms to increase transparency about its location tracking settings.

Ferguson’s lawsuit against Google asserted that the tech giant deceptively led consumers to believe that they have control over how Google collects and uses their location data. In reality, consumers could not effectively prevent Google from collecting, storing and profiting from their location data.

The lawsuit itself, announced back in January 2022, claimed Google used a “number of deceptive and unfair practices” to obtain user content for tracking. Practices highlighted included “hard to find” location settings, misleading descriptions of location settings, and “repeated nudging” to enable location settings alongside incomplete disclosures of Google’s location data collection.

These practices were set alongside the large amount of profit Google generated from using consumer data to sell advertising. Google made close to $150 billion from advertising in 2020, and the case pointed out that location data is a key component of said advertising. As per the Attorney General:

(Google) has a financial incentive to dissuade users from withholding access to that data.

The location based argument is focused on the discrepancy between claims related to what data Google stores in theory with location data turned off, and what it obtains in practice:

When users enable a setting called “Location History,” Google saves data on users’ location to, as it says in its account settings, “give you personalised maps, recommendations based on places you’ve visited, and more.”

Google told users that when Location History was disabled, the company did not continue to store the user’s location. For years, Google’s help page stated, “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” That statement was false. For example, the company collects location data under a separate setting — “Web & App Activity” — that is defaulted “on” for all Google Accounts.

The consent decree filed on Wednesday means Google will need to be more transparent with regard to tracking. The search engine giant will also need to provide more detailed information in cases where location technologies are involved.

AG Ferguson had this to say:

Google denied Washington consumers the ability to choose whether the company could track their sensitive location data, deceived them about their privacy options and profited from that conduct. Today’s resolution holds one of the most powerful corporations accountable for its unethical and unlawful tactics.

Google has been on the receiving end of legal action led by Ferguson for some time now. Just last month, he partnered with the US Department of Justice and a bipartisan group of attorneys general for an antitrust lawsuit aiming to break up Google’s monopolisation of display advertising. There have also been other antitrust lawsuits in this space, and in 2021 Google paid $423,659.76 in relation to violating the state’s campaign finance disclosure law.

We still don’t know how these proposed changes will take shape in terms of what consumers will see. “…with no federal law governing online privacy in the United States, state regulators are forced to make do with what they have” according to Android Central. With Ferguson showing no signs of letting up, Washington State is taking that philosophy to the max.

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