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Google agrees to pay $93m to settle location data lawsuit

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The company was accused by the state of California of providing misleading information on its use of location data.

Google has reached a $93m (£75m) settlement with the state of California, following allegations that the company violated the state’s data protection laws. 

The lawsuit was brought by California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, following a multiyear investigation into the company’s data “misleading” data policies. 

Location data is a key part of Google’s digital advertising business, which it uses in combination with the personal and behavioural data it collects to build detailed user profiles for ad targeting. It is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects, as even a limited amount can expose a person’s identity and routines and can be used to infer personal details.

The investigations found that Google was “deceiving users” by collecting, storing and using their location data for advertising purposes without informed consent. Moreover, the suit claimed that the company continued these practices even after users turned off their location history. 

“Our investigation revealed that Google was telling its users one thing – that it would no longer track their location once they opted out – but doing the opposite and continuing to track its users’ movements for its own commercial gain,” Bonta said. “That’s unacceptable, and we’re holding Google accountable with today’s settlement.”

The lawsuit referred to instances between 2014 and 2018 in which Google used “deceptive prompts” to lead them to turn on location history. Even though the location history setting is supposed to be off by default for new users, they were soon shown a message asking them to “[e]nhance [their] Google Maps experience”. If they clicked yes, they would be unknowingly turning on location history. 

The investigation also found that Google told users that, if they turned the location history feature off, their location data would not be recorded in any device associated with that account. 

“This statement was clear and direct, and it was also false,” the complaint reads. “Even after a user turned off location history, Google would not delete the previously collected location history data for the user, but would continue to both store and use the data to serve geotargeted ads.” 

The company was also accused of using location data to show users targeted ads even after they had opted out of the personalised ads feature. 

As part of the terms of the settlement, Google will not admit to any wrongdoings. However, the company did agree to implement changes, including new restrictions in its use of location data and its communications with users to be more transparent about its location-tracking practices. 

The new policies include showing additional information to users when enabling location-related account settings, disclosing when their information may be used for personalising ads and obtaining permission from Google’s internal privacy working group when making material changes to location-setting and ad personalisation disclosures.

“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this matter, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” a Google spokesperson said.

This is not the first time Google has faced similar accusations. In November 2022, the company agreed to pay $391.5m (£315.1m) to 40 states that claimed Google was misusing users’ location data. 

The news of the settlement come only days after Google begun what could become the most significant anti-trust monopoly trial in 25 years. Over the next 10 weeks, US officials will aim to prove that Google relied on anti-competitive agreements to become the dominant search engine in a trial that could have significant repercussions for big-tech firms. 

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