Google fined $42.5m over misleading Android location settings in Australia

Ad behemoth committed to 'providing the most helpful products possible'

Google is being ordered to pay A$60 million ($42.5 million) in penalties to Australia's competition and national consumer law regulator regarding the collection and use of location data on Android phones.

The financial slap on the wrist relates to a period between January 2017 and December 2018 and follows court action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

According to the regulators, Google misled consumers through the "Location History" setting. Some users were told, according to the ACCC, that the setting "was the only Google account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept and used personally identifiable data about their location."

It was not. Another setting titled "Web & App Activity" also permitted data to be collected by Google. And it allowed the collection of "personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default," the ACCC said.

The "misleading representations," according to the ACCC, breach Australian consumer law and could have been viewed by the users of 1.3 million Google accounts in Australia. The figure is, however, a best estimate. We're sure Google doesn't collect telemetry showing where Android users navigate to either.

Privacy issues aside, the data could also be used by Google to target ads to consumers who thought they'd said no to collection.

Google "took remedial steps" and addressed the issues by December 20, 2018, but the damage was done and the ACCC instituted proceedings in October 2019. In April 2021, the Federal Court found that Google LLC (the US entity) and Google Australia Pty Ltd had breached Australian consumer law.

As for that A$60m, it was awarded against Google LLC rather than its subsidiary Google Australia Pty Ltd ("in circumstances where the Australian company was not responsible for the preparation of the screens which the Court found were misleading").

Google was also ordered to ensure "certain staff" were trained in Australian consumer law and pay a contribution to the ACCC's costs.

A Google spokesperson told The Register: "We can confirm that we've agreed to settle the matter concerning historical conduct from 2017-2018. We've invested heavily in making location information simple to manage and easy to understand with industry-first tools like auto-delete controls, while significantly minimizing the amount of data stored. As we've demonstrated, we're committed to making ongoing updates that give users control and transparency, while providing the most helpful products possible."

Google has come under fire from other quarters regarding the obtaining of customer location data without proper consent. A group of US states sued the search giant earlier this year over "dark patterns" in the user interface to get hold of location information. Then there was the whole creepy Street View Wi-Fi harvesting debacle.

As for the penalty order, ACCC Chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said: "Companies need to be transparent about the types of data that they are collecting and how the data is collected and may be used, so that consumers can make informed decisions about who they share that data with." ®

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