A multistate effort to crack down on large technology companies got underway Monday as the attorney general from the District of Columbia sued Google over shady user-tracking tactics, with AGs from Indiana, Texas and Washington preparing to follow suit.
For years, the search giant offered privacy settings that appeared to give people control over data, such as location information. The AGs believe they amounted to false promises and allege that from 2014 to 2019, the company undertook “dark patterns” designed to manipulate or push users into giving up location data anyway.
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“Google uses tricks to continuously seek to track a user’s location,” explained Karl A. Racine, D.C.’s attorney general, who described the bipartisan suit as an “overdue enforcement action against a flagrant violator of privacy and the laws of our states.”
Online advertising platforms rely on user-tracking to target ads, a key practice in what has become big business across social, search and video. Noting historic gains in digital ad spending, eMarketer expects even greater growth this year that will break more than $500 billion.
With that much at stake, platforms aren’t likely to stop tracking users entirely. But as pressure mounts over privacy concerns, the focus hones in on transparency. The goal is to make people aware of such features and give them control over the settings.
The D.C. lawsuit filed Monday said Google has “powerful financial incentive” to make that hard for consumers. It alleged that the company engaged in deceptive actions that misled people into thinking that turning off location settings would keep their whereabouts private.
“Yet, even when consumers explicitly opted out of location tracking by turning location history off, Google nevertheless recorded consumers’ locations via other means,” the filing argued. “Although Web & App Activity setting is automatically enabled for all Google accounts, the company’s disclosures during Google account creation did not mention or draw consumers’ attention to the setting until 2018.”
The suit also described “dark patterns” to sway user behavior, such as warning that turning off location sharing would compromise the functionality of some apps.
In a statement to the media, Google denied the accusations and pointed to updates in recent years to offer more transparency, simplicity and control over location settings.
“The Attorneys General are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings,” said Google spokesman José Castañeda. “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.”
Google has faced lawsuits over privacy and advertising practices before, though the latest case comes amid a more recent and broader effort to hold large technology companies accountable. Google parent Alphabet, Apple, Facebook’s Meta, Amazon and others have been facing increasing scrutiny over acquisitions, app store policies, marketplace behavior and many other issues, which may lead to greater regulation over how Big Tech operates.