Australian regulator sues Google over data privacy issues

It says US tech giant misled consumers in order to use their personal data in targeted ads

SYDNEY • Australia's competition regulator yesterday accused Alphabet's Google of misleading consumers to get permission for use of their personal data in targeted advertising, seeking a fine "in the millions" and aiming to establish a precedent.

The move comes as scrutiny grows worldwide over data privacy, with US and European lawmakers recently focusing on how tech companies treat user data.

In court documents, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission accused US tech giant Google of not explicitly getting consent from or properly informing consumers of a 2016 move to combine personal information in Google accounts with browsing activities on non-Google websites.

"This change... was worth a lot of money to Google," said commission chairman Rod Sims. "We allege they've achieved it through misleading behaviour."

The change allowed Google to link the browsing behaviour of millions of consumers with their names and identities, providing it with extreme market power, the regulator added.

"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," Mr Sims said.

However, Google said the change was optional and that consumer consent was sought through prominent and easy-to-understand notifications.

"If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged," said a Google spokesman in an e-mail, adding that the company intends to defend its position.

In June 2016, Google changed the wording of its privacy policy, dropping a statement that it would not combine data known as "cookies" from its advertisement display business, DoubleClick, with users' personal information.

Instead, the new policy read: "Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google services."

The Australian regulator alleges that Google used the combined data to boost targeted advertising - a key income source - and that it did not make clear to consumers the changes in its privacy policy. "This is an action we are taking that others have not," said Mr Sims.

The regulator, through its action in Australia's federal court, also wanted to establish the common law on what providers in various jurisdictions could do, and was potentially seeking "millions" in damages, he added, without specifying a figure.

"We will keep taking action, as will agencies overseas, and it will shape how these platforms behave, to make sure that the Internet is a benefit to users, not a detriment."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2020, with the headline Australian regulator sues Google over data privacy issues. Subscribe