The Federal Court has found Google misled some users about personal location data collected through Android devices for two years, from January 2017 to December 2018.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) says this decision is a “world first” in relation to Google’s location privacy settings. The ACCC now intends to seek various orders against Google. These will include monetary penalties under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), which could be up to A$10 million or 10% of Google’s local turnover.
Other companies too should be warned that representations in their privacy policies and privacy settings could lead to similar liability under the ACL.
But this won’t be a complete solution to the problem of many companies concealing what they do with data, including the way they share consumers’ personal information.
How did Google mislead consumers about their location history?
The Federal Court found Google’s previous location history settings would have led some reasonable consumers to believe they could prevent their location data being saved to their Google account. In fact, selecting “Don’t save my Location History in my Google Account” alone could not achieve this outcome.
Users needed to change an additional, separate setting to stop location data from being saved to their Google account. In particular, they needed to navigate to “Web & App Activity” and select “Don’t save my Web & App Activity to my Google Account”, even if they had already selected the “Don’t save” option under “Location History”.
ACCC Chair Rod Sims responded to the Federal Court’s findings, saying:
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.
Google has since changed the way these settings are presented to consumers, but is still liable for the conduct the court found was likely to mislead some reasonable consumers for two years in 2017 and 2018.
ACCC has misleading privacy policies in its sights
This is the second recent case in which the ACCC has succeeded in establishing misleading conduct in a company’s representations about its use of consumer data.
In 2020, the medical appointment booking app HealthEngine admitted it had disclosed more than 135,000 patients’ non-clinical personal information to insurance brokers without the informed consent of those patients. HealthEngine paid fines of A$2.9 million, including approximately A$1.4 million relating to this misleading conduct.
The ACCC has two similar cases in the wings, including another case regarding Google’s privacy-related notifications and a case about Facebook’s representations about a supposedly privacy-enhancing app called Onavo.
In bringing proceedings against companies for misleading conduct in their privacy policies, the ACCC is following the US Federal Trade Commission which has sued many US companies for misleading privacy policies.
Will this solve the problem of confusing and unfair privacy policies?
The ACCC’s success against Google and HealthEngine in these cases sends an important message to companies: they must not mislead consumers when they publish privacy policies and privacy settings. And they may receive significant fines if they do.
However, this will not be enough to stop companies from setting privacy-degrading terms for their users, if they spell such conditions out in the fine print. Such terms are currently commonplace, even though consumers are increasingly concerned about their privacy and want more privacy options.
Major changes to Australian privacy laws will also be required before companies will be prevented from pervasively tracking consumers who do not wish to be tracked. The current review of the federal Privacy Act could be the beginning of a process to obtain fairer privacy practices for consumers, but any reforms from this review will be a long time coming.