Google to Pay $93 Million for Tricking Users
When Google placed an ad that told viewers they could “Enhance your Google Maps experience,” if they clicked a box that said, “Yes I’m in,” the click actually did just the opposite. It turned on their location history, enabling Google to collect, store and use location data for profiling and advertising purposes without having the informed consent of users. By placing the misleading ad, the search engine giant violated California consumer protection laws and has now settled with the state for $93 million and an agreement to change its practices to “deter future misconduct.”
On September 14, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the settlement, which is the result of a multi-year investigation by the State’s Department of Justice. “Our investigation revealed that Google was telling its users one thing – that it would no longer track their location once they opted out – but doing the opposite and continuing to track its users’ movements for its own commercial gain. That’s unacceptable, and we’re holding Google accountable with today’s settlement,” he said in a press release from his office.
The complaint, People of the State of California v. Google LLC, has two causes of action: violation of California’s False Advertising Law and engaging in “unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent acts or practices, which constitute unfair competition within the meaning of Section 17200 of the Business and Professions Code. This section prohibits unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising.
Why would Google violate California’s consumer protection laws? Bonta explained that the Mountain View, California-based subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. “generates the majority of its revenue from advertising, and location-based tracking is a critical feature of Google’s advertising platform because advertisers want the ability to market to users based on their geographical locations. Google also uses its location data to build behavioral profiles of users to help determine which ads to serve users.”
Bonta’s office explained that Google offers users three different settings, which many users neither “know about nor understand.” The first of these, called “Location History,” tracks where users are. When an account is opened, this feature is supposed to be turned off. But from 2014 to 2018, the complaint said, “Google showed users deceptive prompts when they used certain Google apps to mislead users into unwittingly enabling Location History.” Google also promised that turning off Location History would also stop Google from storing their data.
The complaint said, “This statement was clear and direct, and it was also false.” Actually, nothing was deleted and the location feature still operated whenever a Google account was opened.
Google’s second setting is called “Web and App Activity.” This setting “saves a record of a user’s activities on various Google products and services, including a time-stamped location.” Thus, even if the Location History is turned off, Google could still know where users are and what they are doing because of this feature.
The third setting is “Ads Personalization.” This one enables advertisers to “target” likely users and, despite whether they say they prefer the setting that says, “Show me ads that aren’t personalized,” the complaint said “Google still uses the user’s real-time location information to serve them targeted ads. Thus, contrary to the plain language of the setting options, users are not actually able to choose whether the ads they see are personalized to them.”
The final judgment, filed in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, requires Google to pay the state $93 million and imposes several injunctive terms, including providing additional information to users when they enable “location-related settings”; increasing the “transparency about location tracking”; giving users more information about how the company collects and uses consumer information by creating a “Location Technologies” webpage; and disclosing that consumer information “may be used for ad personalization and targeting profiles.”
Google’s Internal Privacy Working Group must also review all material changes that “will have a material impact on privacy.”
If Google’s behavior is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 which warned the world that “Big Brother is watching you,” this settlement might force Google to watch everyone a bit less. Or at least maybe it will give those who understand all the company’s levels, disclosures, and choices a better opportunity to safeguard their privacy. Perhaps Google users can even hide from ubiquitous advertisers who seem to magically know where they are and what they are doing, buying and possibly even thinking.