Google misled users over data privacy issues. says Australian watchdog

Australia’s competition regulator has accused Google of misleading consumers to get permission for use of their personal data for targeted advertising.

 The move, which is seeking a fine “in the millions” and aims to establish a precedent, comes as scrutiny grows worldwide over data privacy, with US and European lawmakers currently investigating how tech companies treat user data.

In court documents, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) accused Google of not explicitly getting consent or properly informing consumers of a 2016 move to combine personal information in Google accounts with browsing activities on non-Google websites.

“This change… was worth a lot of money to Google,” said commission chairman Rod Sims. “We allege they’ve achieved it through misleading behaviour.”

The change allowed Google to link the browsing behaviour of millions of consumers with their names and identities, providing it with extreme market power, the regulator added.

Sims said: “We consider Google misled Australian consumers about what it planned to do with large amounts of their personal information, including internet activity on websites not connected to Google.”

In response to these allegations, 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,” a Google spokesman said in an email, adding that the company intends to defend its position on the matter.

In June 2016, Google had changed the wording of its privacy policy, dropping a statement that it would not combine data known as “cookies” from its advertisement display business, DoubleClick, with users’ personal information.

Instead, the new policy read: “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.”

The Australian regulator alleges that Google used the combined data to boost targeted advertising – a key income source – and that it did not make clear to consumers of its changes in its privacy policy. “This is an action we are taking that others have not,” Sims said.

The regulator, through its action in Australia’s Federal Court, wanted to establish the common law on what providers in various jurisdictions could do, and was potentially seeking “millions” in damages, he added, without specifying a figure.

He said: “We will keep taking action, as will agencies overseas, and it will shape how these platforms behave, to make sure that the internet is a benefit to users, not a detriment.”

In June, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the tech company in the US. It claimed its tracking of users when they browse in private modes illegally violates user privacy.

Also at the start of 2020, the company announced plans to “phase out” support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser as part of measures designed to improve user privacy.