“When consumers try to opt out of Google’s collection of location data, the company is continuing to find misleading ways to obtain information and use it for profit,” Brnovich (R) said in an interview.
Jose Castaneda, a spokesman for Google, defended the company’s privacy practices in a statement, stressing the state and its “contingency fee lawyers filing this lawsuit appear to have mischaracterized our services."
“We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data. We look forward to setting the record straight,” he said.
The case marks regulators’ latest rebuke of Google for its approach to privacy, a decade of allegations that the tech behemoth wrongly tracked users’ web browsing behavior, improperly siphoned students’ data and illegally collected details about children who were viewing cartoons on YouTube. The fines have totaled into the millions of dollars in the United States, but they pale in comparison to the massive annual revenue that make Google one of the world’s most profitable companies.
Yet Arizona’s lawsuit also reflects a growing sense among state and federal regulators that Google has grown too big, powerful and unchecked. Other state attorneys general — and law-enforcement officials at the Justice Department — are expected to file additional complaints against Google this summer, alleging that other elements of its business violate antitrust law.
“At some point, people or companies that have a lot of money think they can do whatever the hell they want to do, and feel like they are above the law,” Brnovich said. “I wanted Google to get the message that Arizona has a state consumer fraud act. They may be the most innovative company in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the law.”
Arizona began probing Google — an inquiry first reported by The Washington Post in 2018 — following an investigation led by the Associated Press into Google’s tracking behavior.
Generally, smartphones running Android allow users to turn off a feature that tracks their movements. But the state alleged in its complaint Wednesday that these devices still recorded and kept location records for certain apps — including mapping and weather — as well as searches, even for users who disabled location tracking.
Users instead had to turn off a second, hard-to-find setting if they wanted to prevent this digital trail from being recorded, according to Arizona’s lawsuit, which faulted Google’s maze of menus as deceptive. The state’s charges echo the views of privacy experts and congressional lawmakers, though Google previously maintained it offered “clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time.”
The heavily redacted filing appears to suggest other instances in which Google may have misled users about location tracking. Menus were hard to find, and in some cases, Google changed the default tracking settings “without informing the user, much less seeking or obtaining consent,” Arizona contends. In doing so, state officials faulted Google for “uncooperative conduct, delay tactics, and general failure to comply” with the attorney general’s demands for records.
By Arizona’s estimation, Google’s “seemingly relentless drive” to collect location data in turn helped the tech giant deliver targeted ads to Arizona residents who may not have consented to such tracking in the first place. To that end, Brnovich asked a court to require Google to pay back ill-gotten profits from its alleged misdeeds, totaling perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, the attorney general said. State anti-fraud laws also allow Arizona to obtain up to $10,000 per violation.
“Users, including in Arizona, have come to rely on Google’s products and services on a daily basis,” the state’s complaint contends. “At the same time, through these deceptive and unfair acts and practices, Google makes it impractical if not impossible for users to meaningfully opt-out of Google’s collection of location information, should the users seek to do so.”