Google building on their campus in Mountain View, California on September 24, 2019.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File
WASHINGTON (AP) — The District of Columbia and three states are suing Google for allegedly misleading consumers and invading their privacy by making it nearly impossible for them to prevent their location from being tracked.
In the lawsuit filed Monday in District of Columbia court, DC Attorney General Karl Racine alleges that Google “systematically” deceived consumers about how their locations are tracked and used. He also says the internet search giant has misled users into believing they can control the information the company collects about them.
“In fact, consumers who use Google products cannot prevent Google from collecting, storing and profiting from their location,” the lawsuit states. Google has “an unprecedented ability to monitor the daily lives of consumers”.
Google is preventing users from opting out of tracking of their sensitive and valuable location data, according to the lawsuit.
The attorneys general of Texas, Indiana and Washington state filed similar lawsuits in their state courts on Monday.
“Google’s business model relies on constant monitoring of its users,” Racine’s office said in a press release. The DC lawsuit says Google has “a powerful financial incentive to obscure the details” of its location data collection and make it difficult for consumers to opt out. It says location data is a key part of its digital advertising business which generated $150 billion in revenue for Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., in 2020.
The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., disputes the claims.
“Attorneys General are bringing a case based on inaccurate allegations and outdated assertions regarding our settings,” Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda said in a statement. “We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data.”
The company will fight back and “set the record straight,” Castaneda said.
Google says that over the past few years it has made several improvements to make location data easier to manage and understand, and minimized the amount of data stored.
The lawsuits are the latest in a series of legal salvoes against the tech giant, whose search engine accounts for around 90% of web searches globally.
In December 2020, 10 states led by Texas filed a federal lawsuit against Google accusing it of “anti-competitive conduct” in the online advertising industry, including an agreement to manipulate sales with rival Facebook.
In October 2020, the US Department of Justice, joined by 11 states, filed a landmark antitrust lawsuit against Google for allegedly abusing its dominance in online search and advertising. The lawsuit asked the court to order structural changes “as needed” for Google, opening the door to possible fundamental changes such as a spin-off of its Chrome browser.
In recent years, European regulators have imposed multibillion-dollar fines on Google over competition concerns, in a bid to limit its influence on the continent. Google, one of the world’s most profitable companies, helped Alphabet generate $18.9 billion in revenue in the July-September quarter last year.
Bipartisan legislation advanced last week by a Senate panel would prevent dominant online platforms — Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon and Apple — from favoring their own goods and services over those of their competitors. This could, for example, lead to restrictions for the Google search engine, which regularly places its services at the top of search results.
The new lawsuits mirror one filed by Arizona in May 2020, similarly accusing Google of misleading consumers about protecting their personal data. A year ago, an Arizona judge denied the state’s request for summary judgment, ruling that the state did not have sufficient evidence and saying the case should go to a jury. The judge said the state relied heavily on Google’s internal communications, none of which definitively indicates that consumers were misled.
Unsealed documents in the Arizona case in August 2020 revealed that Google’s own engineers were troubled by how the company secretly tracked the movements of users who did not want to be tracked.
Racine’s office said it began its investigation following the publication of an Associated Press investigation in August 2018 showing that Google is logging users’ movements even when they explicitly tell it not to, via the “History of positions” parameter. Computer scientists at Princeton University confirmed the findings at the request of the AP.
Inside Google, an eponymous “Oh S—” meeting was convened the day the AP story was published to offer answers, the new DC filing says. Subsequently, Google updated its help page to remove the misleading point, “With Location History turned off, the places you go are no longer stored,” the suit reads.