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Why Australian courts should drag Google for its dubious location tracking practices

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has had a significant win against Google. The Federal Court found Google misled some Android users about how to disable personal location tracking.

Will this decision actually change the behavior of the big tech companies? The answer will depend on the size of the penalty awarded in response to the misconduct.


Read more: ACCC ‘world first’: Australia’s Federal Court found Google misled users about personal location data


In theory, the penalty is A$1.1 million per contravention. There is a contravention each time a reasonable person in the relevant class is misled. So the total award could, in theory, amount to many millions of dollars.

But the actual penalty will depend on how the court characterizes the misconduct. We believe Google’s behavior should not be treated as a simple accident, and the Federal Court should issue a heavy fine to deter Google and other companies from behaving this way in future.

Misleading conduct and privacy settings

The case arose from the representations made by Google to users of Android phones in 2018 about how it obtained personal location data.

The Federal Court held Google had misled some consumers by representing that “having Web & App Activity turned ‘on’ would not allow Google to obtain, retain and use personal data about the user’s location”.

In other words, some consumers were misled into thinking they could control Google’s location data collection practices by switching “off” Location History, whereas Web & App Activity also needed to be disabled to provide this protection.


Read more: The ACCC is suing Google for misleading millions. But calling it out is easier than fixing it


The ACCC also argued consumers reading Google’s privacy statement would be misled into thinking personal data was collected for their own benefit rather than Google’s. However, the court dismissed this argument on the grounds that reasonable users wanting to turn the Location History “off”

would have assumed that Google was obtaining as much commercial advantage as it could from use of the user’s personal location data.

This is surprising and might deserve further attention from regulators concerned to protect consumers from corporations “data harvesting” for profit.

How much should Google pay?

The penalty and other enforcement orders against Google will be made at a later date.

The aim of the penalty is to deter Google specifically, and other firms like Google, from engaging in misleading conduct again. If penalties are too low they may be treated by wrongdoing firms as merely a “cost of doing business”.

However, in circumstances where there is a high degree of corporate culpability, the Federal Court has shown willingness to award higher amounts than in the past. This has occurred even where the regulator has not sought higher penalties. In the recent Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft v ACCC judgement, the full Federal Court confirmed an award of A$125 million against Volkswagen for making false representations about compliance with Australian diesel emissions standards.