ACCC is taking legal action against Google, alleging it didn’t have the correct form of consent from millions of Australians consumers when it began combining their internet browsing activity with their Google account data in 2016. 

The consumer watchdog has today launched Federal Court proceedings against Google alleging the search giant misled Australian consumers to obtain their consent to expand the scope of personal information that Google could collect and combine about consumers’ internet activity, which could then be used to serve targeted ads. 

The case follows the ACCC’s ongoing federal court case against Google over the use of location data launched in October 2019. 

The new complaint centres around a change to privacy policy on June 28, 2016 which allowed Google to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google’s DoubleClick technology to display ads. 

For example, the change meant if a Google user was researching a personal health issue on her desktop computer and visited a health website that uses Google technology to display ads, Google would have saved data about this activity with the woman’s Google account.  

Previously, this information had been kept separately from users’ Google accounts, meaning the data was not linked to an individual user. ACCC argues the newly combined information was used to improve the commercial performance of Google’s advertising businesses.

The ACCC alleges Google misled consumers by failing to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent to combined the data, impacting millions of Australians with Google accounts.

A Google spokesperson told Which-50, “We have cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation into this matter. We strongly disagree with their allegations and intend to defend our position.”

Google argues the change was opt-in and allowed users’ ad settings to be applied across devices with tools for them to control or delete their data.

“In June 2016, we updated our ads system and associated user controls to match the way people use Google products: across many different devices. The changes we made were optional and we asked users to consent via prominent and easy-to-understand notifications. If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged.”

A question of consent 

“We are taking this action because we consider Google misled Australian consumers about what it planned to do with large amounts of their personal information, including internet activity on websites not connected to Google,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.

“Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis. This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites. It then used this information to serve up highly targeted advertisements without consumers’ express informed consent,” Sims said.

“We allege that Google did not obtain explicit consent from consumers to take this step.”

From 28 June 2016 until at least December 2018, Google account holders were prompted to click “I agree” to a pop-up notification from Google that purported to explain how it planned to combine their data, and sought the consumers’ consent for this. 

However the watchdog argues the “I agree” notification was misleading, because consumers could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used, and so did not – and could not – give informed consent.

“We believe that many consumers, if given an informed choice, may have refused Google permission to combine and use such a wide array of their personal information for Google’s own financial benefit,” Sims said.

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