DC, 3 states are suing Google for violating user privacy

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FILE – A sign is seen atop a Google building on their campus in Mountain View, California, on September 24, 2019. In a lawsuit filed in a Washington court on Monday, January 24, 2022, the District of Columbia and three states are suing Google for allegedly deceiving consumers and invading their privacy by making it near impossible for them to do so made to prevent tracking of their location. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file)

AP

The District of Columbia and three states are suing Google for allegedly deceiving consumers and violating their privacy by making it nearly impossible for them to prevent their location from being tracked.

In the lawsuit, filed Monday in a District of Columbia court, DC Attorney General Karl Racine alleges that Google “systematically” misled consumers about how their locations were 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 reality, consumers who use Google products cannot prevent Google from collecting, storing, and benefiting from their location,” the lawsuit states. Google has “an unparalleled ability to monitor consumers’ daily lives.”

Google makes it impossible for users to opt out of tracking their sensitive and valuable location data, the lawsuit alleges.

Attorneys general for Texas, Indiana and Washington filed similar lawsuits in their state courts on Monday.

“Google’s business model relies on the constant monitoring of its users,” Racine’s office said in a press release. The DC lawsuit alleges that Google has “strong financial incentives to obfuscate the details” of its location data collection, making it difficult for consumers to opt out. Location data is an important part of the digital advertising business that brought in $150 billion in revenue for Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. in 2020.

The Mountain View, California-based company denies the claims.

“The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated claims about our settings,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement. “We’ve always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data.”

The company will defend itself and “set the record straight,” Castaneda said.

Google says it’s made several improvements in recent years to make location data easy to manage and understand, and has minimized the amount of data it stores.

The lawsuits are the latest in a string of legal salvos against the tech giant, whose search engine accounts for an estimated 90% of global web searches.

In December 2020, 10 Texas-led states filed a federal lawsuit against Google alleging “anticompetitive conduct” in the online advertising industry, including a sales-rigging agreement with rival Facebook.

In October 2020, the US Department of Justice along with 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 like a fork of its Chrome browser.

European regulators have fined Google billions of dollars over competition issues in recent years in a bid to curb its influence on the continent. Google, one of the most profitable companies in the world, helped Alphabet generate $18.9 billion in revenue in its most recent quarter from July through September.

Bipartisan legislation put forward by a Senate panel last week would prevent the dominant online platforms – Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon and Apple – from favoring their own goods and services over those of competitors. For example, it could bring limitations to Google’s search engine, which routinely ranks its services at the top of search results.

The new lawsuits mirror a May 2020 lawsuit filed by Arizona similarly accusing Google of misleading consumers about the privacy of their personal information. 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 before a jury. The judge said the state relied heavily on internal Google communications, none of which clearly allege consumers were misled.

Documents unsealed in the Arizona case in August 2020 revealed that Google’s own engineers were concerned about how the company was secretly tracking the movements of users who chose not to be tracked.

Racine’s office said it began its investigation after the Associated Press published an August 2018 investigation showing that Google records users’ movements through the “Location History” setting, even when they specifically prohibit it. Computer science researchers at Princeton University confirmed the results when asked by AP.

A self-titled “Oh S—” meeting was called within Google on the day the AP story broke to find answers, the new DC filing says. Afterwards, Google updated its help page to remove the misleading dot: “When location history is turned off, the places you visit are no longer saved,” the suit reads.

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