Australia sues Google over data collection practices that merged DoubleClick data to create single user profiles

Alleges opt-in that promised “more control” actually sent more data without informed consent. Google 'strongly disagrees'

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The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has hauled Google into the nation’s Federal Court for misleading local users “… to obtain their consent to expand the scope of personal information that Google could collect and combine about consumers’ internet activity, for use by Google, including for targeted advertising.”

The ACCC’s beef is that Google started to combine its own data with information gathered by DoubleClick and did so without properly informing users, making its process for securing consent misleading.

The pop-up notice that Google sent to users starting in June 2016 was titled “Some new features for your Google Account” and said “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.”

But the ACCC says that notice was accompanied by a change to Google Australia’s privacy policy, which prior to June 2016 said the company “will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.” The ACCC alleges that after the pop-up appeared, the policy changed to say ““[d]epending 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 Commission also notes that Google’s privacy policy says it will not reduce user rights.

And that’s the nub of the matter because the ACCC “alleges that Google did not in fact obtain consumers’ explicit consent for this change to the privacy policy, and that Google’s statement that it would not reduce consumers’ rights without their explicit consent was therefore misleading.”

“Google misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent, about its move in 2016 to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads,” the Commission’s announcement says.

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“This meant this data about users’ non-Google online activity became linked to their names and other identifying information held by Google. Previously, this information had been kept separately from users’ Google accounts, meaning the data was not linked to an individual user.”

ACCC chair Rod Sims said: “We are taking this action because 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.”

“Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis. This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites. It then used this information to serve up highly targeted advertisements without consumers’ express informed consent,” Mr Sims said.

The case is relevant beyond Australia, as the ACCC notes that US and European regulators signed off on Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick after considering promises that data from the two companies would not be merged.

Google sent The Register the following statement:

“In June 2016, we updated our ads system and associated user controls to match the way people use Google products: across many different devices. The changes we made were optional and we asked users to consent via prominent and easy-to-understand notifications. If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged. We have cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation into this matter. We strongly disagree with their allegations and intend to defend our position.”

Australia has in recent years made itself quite the pest for internet giants: the nation led an international effort to block live-streaming of violent incidents, has imposed crypto-busting legislation that compels assistance to read private messages and floated having Google and Facebook pay for news content their users share as part of an inquiry into how web giants have impacted the nation’s economy.

The case is not yet listed in Australia’s Federal Court but once it lands there will doubtless provide months of frolicsome courtroom fun and plenty of earnest blog posts from Google that say it did nothing wrong whatsoever and is just trying to help Australian companies make a buck while helping poor beleaguered Australians to find cat videos more quickly. ®

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