ACCC challenges Google over location data

Hannah Higgins
(Australian Associated Press)

 

In a world-first action, Australia’s competition watchdog is going after Google over allegations the tech giant made false or misleading claims about collecting personal location data.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has accused Google of collecting information on a user’s whereabouts even when they had switched off the location setting.

The ACCC began proceedings against Google in the Federal Court in NSW on Tuesday, alleging it breached the law through a series of on-screen representations made as users set up Google accounts on their Android mobile phones and tablets.

However, ACCC chairman Rod Sims couldn’t rule out a similar breach having occurred on other devices like the iPhone.

The ACCC says between January 2017 and late 2018, when people set up their Google accounts on phones and tablets, they would have incorrectly believed that “Location History” was the only setting that affected whether the company was collecting a user’s location data.

In fact, the setting “Web & App Activity” also had to be switched off if users didn’t want their location data collected.

“When people had their location history turned off, they may have felt that Google was not collecting their location data and recording it and keeping it, but in fact they were,” Mr Sims told reporters in Sydney.

“So you could have been walking around the city … thinking that your location history wasn’t being collected, when in fact it was being collected and it was being kept.”

Mr Sims said the watchdog believed some of the alleged behaviour continues to take place and the ACCC would ask for declarations from Google admitting its actions and promising to stop.

It would also seek to have significant penalties imposed.

The ACCC boss said this was the first time Google has faced action anywhere in the world over alleged misrepresentations made to collect and use data.

Mr Sims refused to be drawn on whether he believed the misleading notices were deliberate – but did make an observation about the value of the misbegotten data.

“Here you’ve got companies who make their money from your attention and your data – that’s their business system, it’s how they operate, it’s what they do,” he said.

“In consumer law you just have to show that there were misrepresentations, you don’t have to show whether this was deliberate or not. But I think you can’t separate the allegations we’re making today from the business system that Google and Facebook are in.”

The investigation was triggered by the ACCC’s digital platform inquiry, without which Mr Sims said the issue would have likely remained under the radar.

He said people become concerned by information that’s kept about them.

“I think in future people all around the world need to know what data is being collected and what it is being used for precisely,” Mr Sims said.

Google says it will fight the claims.

“We are currently reviewing the details of these allegations,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement.

“We continue to engage with the ACCC and intend to defend this matter.”

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