Google alleged to have misled consumers about use of personal data

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has launched Federal Court proceedings against Google, alleging that the tech giant misled consumers to obtain their consent to use and collect personal information.

The expanded scope of personal information was then used by Google for targeted advertising, among other things.

The ACCC alleges that Google misled consumers when it failed to properly inform them about a move in 2016 to start combining personal information in Google accounts with information about their activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology to display ads.

This meant information about users’ non-Google online activity became linked to their names and other identifying information held by Google.

This information was kept separately from users’ Google accounts prior to 2016, which meant that the data was not linked to an individual user.

Google was then able to use this new access to information to improve its advertising business.

ACCC chair Rod Sims said the ACCC was also alleging that Google misled consumers about a related change to its privacy policy.

“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,” Mr Sims said.

“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,” he said.

“We allege that Google did not obtain explicit consent from consumers to take this step.

“The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits.

“The ACCC considers that consumers effectively pay for Google’s services with their data, so this change introduced by Google increased the ‘price’ of Google’s services, without consumers’ knowledge,” Mr Sims said.

The conduct is alleged to have impacted millions of Australians with Google accounts.

From 28 June 2016 until at least December 2018, Google account holders were prompted to click ‘I agree’ to a pop-up notification from Google that purported to explain how it planned to combine their data, and sought the consumers’ consent for this.

The pop-up read: “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.”

The notification also stated, “More information will be available in your Google Account, making it easier for you to review and control” and “Google will use this information to make ads across the web more relevant for you”.

The ACCC alleges that the ‘I agree’ notification was misleading, because consumers could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used, and so did not – and could not – give informed consent.

“We believe that many consumers, if given an informed choice, may have refused Google permission to combine and use such a wide array of their personal information for Google’s own financial benefit,” Mr Sims said.

Do you own any Google accounts? Did you know about this method of collecting data? Do you read everything you agree to online?

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