Google Ordered To Pay $43m By Australian Court

Australia flag parliament government © Neale Cousland Shutterstock

Search engine Google fined $43 million by Australian court for tracking Android users location data for two years in 2017 and 2018

Alphabet’s Google is once again in trouble in Australia, and has been fined millions of dollars for misleading users.

Australia’s competition watchdog, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced that a Federal Court has ordered Google to pay A$60 million ($42.7 million) in penalties.

It claims Google made misleading representations to consumers about the collection and use of their personal location data on Android phones between January 2017 and December 2018.

Location data

This is not the first time Google has been accused of misleading customers down under.

In 2012 for example, Australia’s Federal Court ruled that Google was responsible for “misleading and deceptive” advertisements that appeared on its web pages as part of search results.

Google was found guilty of four breaches of Australia’s Trade Practices Act, which did not result in a fine, but the court ordered the company to set up a compliance program to ensure paid advertisements on its search engine did not mislead consumers in the future.

And now the ACCC pointed out that in this latest case, the Court had previously found that Google had breached the Australian Consumer Law by representing to some Android users that the setting titled “Location History” was the only Google account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept and used personally identifiable data about their location.

The regulator said that in fact, another Google account setting titled “Web & App Activity” also enabled Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default.

“This significant penalty imposed by the Court today sends a strong message to digital platforms and other businesses, large and small, that they must not mislead consumers about how their data is being collected and used,” ACCC Chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said.

“Google, one of the world’s largest companies, was able to keep the location data collected through the “Web & App Activity” setting and that retained data could be used by Google to target ads to some consumers, even if those consumers had the “Location History” setting turned off,” she said.

“Personal location data is sensitive and important to some consumers, and some of the users who saw the representations may have made different choices about the collection, storage and use of their location data if the misleading representations had not been made by Google,” Cass-Gottlieb said.

The ACCC’s best estimate, based on available data, is that the users of 1.3 million Google accounts in Australia may have viewed a screen found by the Court to have breached the Australian Consumer Law.

Already sorted

Google apparently took remedial steps and had addressed all of the contravening conduct by 20 December 2018, meaning that users were no longer shown the misleading screens.

“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,” Cass-Gottlieb said.

“This is the first public enforcement outcome arising out of the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry,” she added.

The Court has also made orders requiring Google to ensure its policies include a commitment to compliance and to train certain staff about Australian Consumer Law, as well as to pay a contribution to the ACCC’s costs.

In an emailed statement, Google told Reuters it had settled the matter and added it has made location information simple to manage and easy to understand.

Previous clash

Google (and Facebook parent Meta) clashed famously with the Australian government in 2020, after it pressed ahead a law change called the ‘media bargaining law’, that would force tech firms to pay local publishers for news and other content they utilise, or even link to, on their platforms.

This saw Google for a time halt its News Showcase scheme in the country, and Google even threatened to pull its search engine out of Australia altogether.

Facebook also banned the sharing of news content in the country for a time.

But Australia did not back down and its parliament in February 2021 passed the law requiring large tech firms to pay news organisations for using their content.

However it included a last-minute change, which removed a key provision that would have forced tech companies into arbitration, giving them more flexibility over the deals they choose to strike.

Last November Google pledged to spend A$1 billion ($736 million) in Australia over the next five years.