Australia’s competition regulator has sued Google on the allegation that the search giant is misleading consumers to get permission for use of their personal data for targeted ads.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said on Monday that Google does not honestly get the consent of users as it tries to combine personal information in Google accounts with browsing activities on non-Google websites, an idea it introduced in 2016.
ACCC said the change is worth a lot of money and provides Google with extreme market power as it enables it to link the browsing behavior of millions of consumers with their names and identities.
“This change… was worth a lot of money to Google. We allege they’ve achieved it through misleading behavior,” said the commission chairman Rod Sims.
“We are taking this action because we consider Google misled the Australian consumers about what it planned to do with large amounts of their personal information, including internet activity on websites not connected to Google.”
This allegation is coming at a time when regulators in Europe and the United States are lining up antitrust cases against big tech companies. The CEOs of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are due to appear before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on Wednesday, over the dominance of a small number of digital platforms and other antitrust issues.
In June 2016, Google said it would not combine cookies from its advertisement display business, DoubleClick, with users’ private information unless it has user’s opt-in consent. But it deleted it on June 28 and replaced it with a new policy.
The new policy said: “Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google services and the ads delivered by Google.”
The 2016 change to Google’s policy means the California-based company will collect data about account holders’ activities in other sites. DoubleClick, an ad serving company used to collect the data and stored it separately from Google’s users’ accounts. In 2008, Google acquired DoubleClick and subsequently merged the users’ data on both platforms after the 2016 change of policy. The change however means that Google is using the combined data to reach more buyers of targeted ads.
The ACCC said from 2016 to 2018, Google account holders were met with a pop-up that explained “optional features” to accounts regarding how the company collected their data. If consumers click “I agree,” Google will begin to harvest a “wide range of personally identifiable information” from them.
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… 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.”
In response, Google said the change was optional and consumer consent was sought through prominent and easy-to-understand notifications.
“If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged,” the company’s spokesman said.
This is the second time in less than a year ACCC is taking Google to court. In October last year, the regulator filed legal charges against the search company over what it described as “false or misleading representations to consumers about the personal location data Google collects, keeps and uses.”
The issue then was about users’ ability to opt out of location tracking on Android phones and tablets. When setting up the Android’s OS, users see an option for Location History. Disabling the option does not disable the collection of all locations unless the user turns off the “Web & App Activity” setting as well.
The commission said as a result of the on-screen representations, Google collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making informed choices.
It is not clear the penalty ACCC is seeking for the stealing of personal information for targeted ad allegation. However, big tech companies are facing more scrutiny than ever before.