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Google sued for allegedly lying, profiting from personal data

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A woman using the application Google Maps on an iPhone.
A woman using the application Google Maps on an iPhone.

The competition watchdog is taking tech giant Google to court for allegedly misleading millions of Australians into sharing more of their private data that Google then attempted to profit from, including for targeted advertising.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is alleging that Google failed to properly inform consumers or obtain written consent about combining personal information on users’ Google accounts with their activities on non-Google sites in 2016.

The move meant that users’ non-Google online activity were linked to their names, where this data was previously not linked to users’ personal information.

Google used the newly-combined information for its commercial gain for its advertising arm, the ACCC said in a statement this morning.

The tech giant also misled Aussies about related changes in its privacy policy, the consumer watchdog alleges.

What happened?

From mid-June 2016 to December 2018 or later, Google users were asked to click ‘I agree’ to a pop-up notification that appeared to explain how the tech giant would use its data, and request permission from this.

“We’ve introduced some optional features for your account, giving you more control over the data Google collects and how it’s used, while allowing Google to show you more relevant ads,” the notification read.

The notification also said: “More information will be available in your Google Account making it easier for you to review and control.”

“Google will use this information to make ads across the web more relevant for you.”

After hitting ‘I agree’, Google was able to collect a broader range of information on the online activities of Google users, including their use of third-party websites.

Combining this information allowed Google to sell more targeted advertising.

The price you pay: Your data

The ACCC is alleging that the ‘I agree’ notification was misleading as consumers could not have understood Google’s changes or how their data would be used, and therefore did not give informed consent.

“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,” said ACCC chair Rod Sims.

“We allege that Google did not obtain explicit consent from consumers to take this step.

“The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits.”

This change led consumers to pay a higher ‘price’ – their privacy.

“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,” Sims said.

Devil’s in the details

Prior to 28 June 2016, Google said in its privacy policy that it “will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent”.

But on 28 June, Google deleted this statement and replaced it with: “depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google”.

The tech giant’s privacy policy also says it “will not reduce your rights under this Privacy Policy without your explicit consent”.

This is a clear representation of how Google will protect users’ privacy, said Sims.

“The ACCC alleges that Google made changes without obtaining the explicit consent it had promised consumers it would obtain before altering how it protected their private information.”

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