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Google deceived consumers about how it profits from their location data, attorneys general allege in lawsuits

The complaints allege the company has deployed ‘dark patterns,’ design tricks that can subtly influence users’ decisions in ways that are advantageous for a business

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) is one of four attorneys general who have filed lawsuits alleging that Google deceived consumers. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Attorneys general from D.C. and three states sued Google on Monday, arguing that the search giant deceived consumers to gain access to their location data.

The lawsuits, filed in the District of Columbia, Texas, Washington and Indiana, allege the company made misleading promises about its users’ ability to protect their privacy through Google account settings, dating from at least 2014. The suits seek to stop Google from engaging in these practices and to fine the company.

The complaints also allege the company has deployed “dark patterns,” or design tricks that can subtly influence users’ decisions in ways that are advantageous for a business. The lawsuits say Google has designed its products to repeatedly nudge or pressure people to provide more and more location data, “inadvertently or out of frustration.” The suits allege this violates various state and D.C. consumer protection laws.

“Google uses tricks to continuously seek to track a user’s location,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D). “This suit, by four attorneys general, on a bipartisan basis, is an overdue enforcement action against a flagrant violator of privacy and the laws of our states.”

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State and D.C. attorneys general from both parties are increasingly taking a more active role by investigating and bringing legal challenges against tech giants.

As the political backlash against the tech giants has grown, lawmakers have debated legislation to protect data privacy. In the last Congress, they started crafting bills that target design practices that could deceive consumers. But in the absence of any new laws, state attorneys general are finding ways to apply existing consumer protection statutes to address practices in the tech industry.

“During this state of paralysis, these companies have become massive and powerful to an extent where they’re able to forestall reasonable regulation,” Racine said in an interview.

Racine said that although the lawsuits are filed against Google, they could send a powerful message to other companies in the tech industry that use similar design tactics.

“The time of trickery for profits is over,” he said.

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“The Attorneys General are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings,” Google spokesman José Castañeda said in a statement. “We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data. We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight.”

Castañeda said the company has made multiple privacy improvements, including launching “auto-delete” controls to help people delete location data on a rolling basis and changing the default settings for new accounts so any activity older than 18 months is automatically deleted.

The complaints Monday against Google come after D.C. opened an investigation into the company in 2018. They build on a May 2020 lawsuit, brought by the Arizona attorney general, that similarly argued that the company set up its Android mobile operating system in a way that enriched its advertising empire and deceived device owners about the protections actually afforded to their personal data. Some of these issues were first publicly revealed in a 2018 Associated Press report, which detailed how many Google services on both Android phones and iPhones store consumers’ location data, even if they selected privacy settings intended to prevent the company from doing so.

An Arizona judge expressed skepticism about some of the arguments made in that lawsuit, writing Google’s privacy policy has always informed users that the company collects and uses location data when they interact with the company’s services. “A reasonable or unsophisticated consumer could conclude that his location information is being collected or used in some manner, even if [location history] is never enabled,” wrote Timothy J. Thomason earlier this month, ruling that there were outstanding factual issues with the case that needed to be resolved through a trial.

In the D.C. lawsuit, the attorney general details how Google has “a powerful financial incentive” to make it difficult for consumers to opt out of having their location tracked. Access to this data translates into better advertising capabilities, which fuel the company’s profits.

“Google’s misleading, ambiguous, and incomplete descriptions of these settings all but guarantee that consumers will not understand when their location is collected and retained by Google or for what purposes,” the D.C. lawsuit states. “And, in reality, regardless of the settings they select, consumers who use Google products have no option but to allow the Company to collect, store, and use their location.”

The D.C. lawsuit details how Google users must navigate a number of “conflicting” settings to control how Google collects and uses their location details. Even when a user changes the settings in their account or device to stop their location data from being saved or transmitted, the suits allege Google can still collect and store it through other Google services, WiFi and Bluetooth scans, or location data shared with Google by its marketing partners.

Google privacy settings to change now

The D.C. lawsuit also states that the company made false claims between 2014 and 2019 about what information it was collecting when people turned off the “location history” setting. Initially, the company didn’t disclose that another setting, which controlled activity on the Web and on apps, also allowed the company to collect users’ location data. The suit alleges that even when people disable “Web and App” activity and “Location History,” the company is still storing location data when they interact with certain Google-operated products.

The company also used dark patterns, such as alerting users that certain apps wouldn’t function properly if they turned their location sharing off, to encourage people to keep these settings activated, the suit alleges.

“Google does not and has never provided similarly frequent prompts to opt out of location sharing,” the D.C. suit says.

The lawsuits are likely to launch a years-long battle between Google and the attorneys general. They come as the search giant is already fighting multiple state attorneys general lawsuits targeting its business practices, including antitrust suits.

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Racine says the courts are one of the best venues for regulators to take on powerful tech companies, which spent nearly $70 million last year lobbying Washington.

“When you file a lawsuit, you can’t lobby a judge,” he said. “We’re going to take it to the court.”

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