Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up
Bloomberg Law
Welcome
Go
Free Newsletter Sign Up

Google Sued by D.C., States Over Tracking Despite Opt-Outs (1)

Jan. 24, 2022, 4:47 PM

A group of state attorneys general, including Texas, Indiana and Washington D.C., said Monday they were suing Alphabet Inc.’s Google over what they allege are deceptive tactics designed to trick consumers into disclosing location data to more accurately target advertising.

Even when consumers turn off location tracking on their phones, Google continues to track their movements using a separate function called “Web & App activity,” the attorneys general said. They cited a 2018 Associated Press report as the basis for the assertion and said the company has since removed a consumer notice claiming that “the places you go are no longer stored.” Portions of the lawsuits were redacted, and the copy of the Washington D.C. complaint said it was filed under seal.

“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,” according to a complaint posted on social media by Washington D.C.

The claims amount to yet another legal challenge to Google’s information gathering, which has come under intense scrutiny from regulators and consumer advocates claiming it is more invasive than consumers want or realize. The company is already facing questions about whether it continues to track web browsers who believe its “incognito mode” cloaks their identity, and whether users can effectively block its activity-tracking cookies.

A Google spokesman, Jose Castaneda, said in a statement that the lawsuits are “based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings. 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.”

According to the attorneys general, the company also has conflicting and confusing user settings, making it almost impossible for consumers to stop Google from collecting their location data.

‘Definitely Confusing’

The District of Columbia lawsuit cited internal Google discussions in which employees said its location history disclosures were “definitely confusing,” and that account settings appeared designed to create the illusion of user control but were “difficult enough that people won’t figure it out.” The complaint did not cite the source of the communications.

The lawsuits say the tactics lasted from 2014 to at least 2019, and occurred through devices using Google’s Android operating system as well as Google apps and web-based services such as search and maps.

A similar case was filed against Google by the state of Arizona in 2020, which alleged “Google makes it impractical if not impossible for users to meaningfully opt-out of Google’s collection of location information.” Like the cases announced Monday, the Arizona lawsuit said Google continued to track user movements through “Web & App activity” and other means even if they chose to turn off the location history.

Google said it has introduced a host of new features that give users more control over their data, including auto-delete of location data, incognito mode on Google maps and more detailed disclosures on their policy statement. The company also said a judge declined Arizona’s request in 2021 for a finding that Google engaged in deceptive practices. The judge cited Google disclosures that it would still collect location data for users of its services even when location history was shut off, the company said.

(Adds Google response, background)

--With assistance from Laurel Calkins.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Christian Berthelsen in New York at cberthelsen1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Katia Porzecanski at kporzecansk1@bloomberg.net

Steve Stroth

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

To read more articles log in.

Learn more about a Bloomberg Law subscription.