Skip to main content
News 16 Apr 2021 - 4 min read

Google misled consumers about location data, Federal Court rules

By Sam Buckingham-Jones - Senior Writer

An Australian Federal Court has found Google engaged in "misleading or deceptive" conduct by not making it clear they were continuing to collect location data despite the "location history" setting on Android devices being turned off. 

What you need to know: 

  • Google engaged in "misleading or deceptive" conduct between January 2017 and December 2018, a Federal Court Justice found. 
  • The ACCC will pursue penalties, as well as a published explanation from Google for users detailing how to turn off their location data. 
  • The court heard there was a meeting described internally at Google as the "Oh Shit" meeting, after an article from the Associated Press with allegations location data was still being collected.

"After the publication of the AP Article, an urgent meeting was held between various Google employees. It was referred to internally as the "Oh Shit" meeting."

Justice Thomas Thawley, Federal Court Justice

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission wants Google to pay a financial penalty and publish a court-mandated explanation of how their location data arrangements work after a Federal Court ruled the global giant misled consumers about how their data was collected on Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018. 

In a decision described as "a world-first enforcement action" by the ACCC, Justice Thomas Thawley ruled there was "misleading or deceptive" conduct from Google in how consumers were told location data would be used when setting up an account. 

New users were told the 'Location History' setting was the only Google Account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location. This setting was defaulted to "off". 

Rather, another setting called 'Web & App Activity' also allowed Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on. This setting was turned on automatically. 

A win for consumers, the ACCC says

ACCC Chair Rod Sims hailed the decision as a historic win. 

“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.

“Today’s decision is an important step to make sure digital platforms are up front with consumers about what is happening with their data and what they can do to protect it.”

Google, meanwhile, said it would consider an appeal. 

"The court rejected many of the ACCC’s broad claims," a spokesperson said.

"We disagree with the remaining findings and are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal. 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.”

The consumer watchdog alleged Google LLC and Google Australia Pty Ltd contravened sections 18, 29, 33 or 34 of the Australian Consumer Law. 

The Federal Court did not accept all of the ACCC's arguments, but did find they "partially made out" their cases under sections 18, 29(1)(g) and 34 of the Australian Consumer Law. 

"Google’s conduct would not have misled all reasonable users in the classes identified," Justice Thawley said in his ruling.

"But Google’s conduct misled or was likely to mislead some reasonable users within the particular classes identified."

“In addition to penalties, we are seeking an order for Google to publish a notice to Australian consumers to better explain Google’s location data settings in the future. This will ensure that consumers can make informed choices about whether certain Google settings that personal collect location data should be enabled."

Rod Sims, Chair of the ACCC

The court found "Google LLC could obtain, retain and use personal location data when a user was using various apps, including Google services such as Google Maps". 

The court heard evidence about internal Google communications after an article from Associated Press found that Google services could store location data despite settings saying it wouldn't. 

"After the publication of the AP Article, an urgent meeting was held between various Google employees," Justice Thawley wrote.

"It was referred to internally as the "Oh Shit" meeting."

After the Associated Press article, there was a 500 per cent increase in the number of users disabling both settings. 

Mr Sims said he would push for Google to publish more clear information for consumers. 

“In addition to penalties, we are seeking an order for Google to publish a notice to Australian consumers to better explain Google’s location data settings in the future. This will ensure that consumers can make informed choices about whether certain Google settings that personal collect location data should be enabled,” he said.

Penalties will be decided at a later date. 

 

Share your reaction (and see how others voted)

Leave a comment (you must be logged in)

Be the first to comment

Search Mi3 Articles

Make it personal

Join Mi3 to receive our weekly edition and personalise your experience