The Australian competition watchdog announced today that Google has been fined $42.7 million ($60m Australian) for unlawfully collecting users’ personal Android location data.
The tech giant — infamous for its privacy blemishes over the years — failed to disclose this matter to its Aussie users, making this a hallmark victory for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. The ACCC has been battling Google over several alleged breaches of consumer law, including this case, since 2019.
Google’s “Web & App Activity” Feature
Courts imposed the hefty fine after stating that Google misled its users by allowing a background app to collect data between January and December 2018.
The Australian Federal Court noted that Google’s “Location History” — a more obvious setting — was not the only way Google could collect data on Android devices. A less obvious “Web & App Activity” background feature ultimately led to customer data and personally identifiable information (PII) being stored and used by the tech company.
“This is an important victory for consumers, especially anyone concerned about their privacy online, as the Court’s decision sends a strong message to Google and others that big businesses must not mislead their customers,” the ACCC’s Chair at the time Rod Sims said in April of last year. This feature could also use consumer data to target consumers with ads even if “Location History” was disabled, the ACCC said.
The payout came after some other important wins for the ACCC, including when they sued Facebook for offering a free VPN service to monitor its users in 2020.
Court Proceedings Continue
According to the ACCC, an estimated 1.3 million Google accounts in Australia “may have viewed a screen found by the Court to have breached the Australian Consumer Law.” Had users known about the background data collection back then, some users may have changed their minds about the feature, the ACCC’s new Chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said.
For consumers to make informed decisions, it is the responsibility of market leaders like Google to transparently and fairly communicate to consumers precisely what data they are collecting and how it is being used, she added.
Because the Courts found the majority of Google’s misconduct dates before September 2018, the company will not be liable to pay the much higher post-September 2018 fines for breaches of Australian Consumer Law. This means Google faces a $1.1 million penalty per breach, as opposed to almost ten times that had the court found the events took place after September 2018.
The ACCC began proceedings for these court actions in October 2019 until Federal Court confirmed Google had breached Australian Consumer Law in April 2021. Now, the Court has added orders that require Google to insure all of its policies will align with Australian Consumer Law in the future and that the company must pay a share of the ACCC’s costs.
Key Google Settings For Consumers
For Google users, it is important to remember that you can access “Web & App Activity” as well as “Location History” via your Google account.
By selecting “Don’t save my Web & App Activity to my Google Account” you can ensure that personal data already stored about you is no longer with Google.
For even more expert tips, check out our guide to what Google knows about you.