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Google burns few hours of profit to disappear location privacy lawsuit

Phrasing, Arizona... AG claims deal is 'historic'

Google will pay $85 million to settle a privacy lawsuit that accused the internet behemoth of deceiving netizens regarding its harvesting of people's location data and using this personal info to rake in billions of dollars in advertising revenue.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) sued Google in May 2020 over these alleged deceptive tracking practices, and since then, several other states in the US including Washington, Texas, Indiana, and the District of Columbia, have filed similar lawsuits against the Android titan.

At the heart of the allegations: that Google uses "dark patterns" in its user interfaces – deceptive controls and layout of settings – to fool people into providing their real-time whereabouts to the mega-corp for targeted advertising purposes.

The attorneys general contend that because this data is critical to Google's advertising business, the company has a financial incentive to discourage users from withholding access to their location data. Ergo, Google deliberately engineers its software so that people don't realize they are handing over details of where they've physically been and when, or don't realize how much they are sharing, or so it was claimed.

Arizona is the first state to settle a lawsuit with Google regarding these allegations, but it likely will not be the last

"Arizona was the first state in the country to file a lawsuit against Google for deceptive and unfair collection, use, and exploitation of user location data," Kenneth Ralston, an Arizona-based attorney working on behalf of the state, told The Register.

"It is also the first state to settle a lawsuit with Google regarding these allegations, but it likely will not be the last."

Not that Google's parent company Alphabet will be seriously inconvenienced by the settlement. The $85 million price tag constitutes less than 12 hours of its $16 billion quarterly profit, judging from its latest financial results [PDF]. As Twitter whistleblower Mudge pointed out to Congress last month, such settlements are just seen as a cost of doing business in America.

Google, for its part, noted it has since changed its data collection policy and said it will continue its efforts to harvest less user data.

"This case is based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago. We provide straightforward controls and auto delete options for location data, and are always working to minimize the data we collect," Google spokesperson José Castañeda told The Register. "We are pleased to have this matter resolved and will continue to focus our attention on providing useful products for our users." 

The Arizona AG's office began investigating Google after a 2018 Associated Press article said the search giant tracked smartphones even when users disabled a "location history" setting. Due to the design of its software, there were still plenty of ways the tech goliath could discover and store one's whereabouts through the use of their devices. In other words, disabling "location history" didn't actually fully do that.

Fast forward two years, and the Grand Canyon state sued Google for allegedly deceiving folks with this confusing maze of options in its apps and Android, all to ultimately cause customers to unwittingly share their location data with Google without adequate consent. Google then used this illicitly obtained personal data to sell ads, according to the lawsuit [PDF].

"This reality is reflected by Google's financials," the complaint stated. "In 2019, for example, over 80 percent of Google's massive revenues – $135 billion out of $161 billion total – were generated by advertising."

As per the settlement agreement [PDF], the bulk of the $85 million will go to Arizona's general fund and require legislative appropriation before it can be spent. However, $5 million is earmarked for attorney general education programs that focus on consumer protection issues. Google also admits no wrongdoing.

"I am proud of this historic settlement that proves no entity, not even big tech companies, is above the law," Brnovich said in a statement.

In addition to the state lawsuits against Google, federal regulators have also put it and other major tech firms in the crosshairs over their data collection and retention practices. 

The FTC recently began its rule-making process to impose stricter privacy rules on corporations, and during a recent public hearing, dark patterns frequently came up as one area that's ripe for regulation. 

Earlier this summer Democrat lawmakers urged the FTC to investigate Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk.

Beyond the Land of the Free, Australian regulators in August fined Google A$60 million ($42.5 million) for its collection and use of location data from Android phones. ®

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