Google, Detroit | Susan J. Demas
Google this month agreed to pay out $391.5 million across 40 states, including $12 for Michigan, after attorneys general sued the technology company for being deceptive about their location tracking practices in what experts said is an important win for consumers.
The settlement was a result of attorneys general suing Google for violating consumer protections. The AGs said the company was misleading consumers into thinking their location tracking services were turned off while the company carried on collecting the information via web services, maps and other Google apps on Wi-Fi and cellular towers.
Additionally, until May 2018, Google tracked the location of those who had logged out of Google apps, even while this move led users to think they had disabled location services.
“I am glad Michigan will benefit from this historic settlement, which lets Google know that its obtuse privacy practices have gone unchecked for too long,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement.
The attorneys general launched the investigation into Google after the Associated Press published an article in 2018 revealing the faults in Google’s location tracking services. The lawsuit presented by the attorneys general examined the company’s operations from 2014 to 2020.
As a result of the settlement, Google will have to make its location tracking practices clear, including revealing how the company collect location data and what data it is allowed to collect when users disable the services for one setting but not another. It will also be forced to explain to users how to turn off their location tracking, delete their acquired data in settings and how to put in place limits on data retention.
Sophia Brueckner, co-director of the Center for Ethics, Society and Computing at the University of Michigan, said that this is a “very good step for consumers” because it ensures companies, like Google, have to be more transparent. She said it also enables users to have more “granular control” over if they want to opt-in or opt-out of a tracking service.
“I think they are key to how we incorporate these technologies into our lives going forward,” Brueckner said. “So I think that’s a really good decision.”
Brueckner noted how important it is for consumers to have both control over and information about their data being collected, specifically location services, since location data can reveal a lot about a consumer. She also said consumers should know how their data is being used, whether it be given to an advertiser, police, and insurance company or some other entity.
The settlement follows a recent history of state attorneys general waging lawsuits against Big Tech companies over antitrust violations, harmful speech, breaches of privacy and illegal labor practices.
Salomé Viljoen, an assistant law professor at the University of Michigan with a focus on the political economy of social data, said that there has been a “lot more success at the state level than the federal level in bringing enforcement actions against Big Tech” because state requirements for civil litigations, like class action lawsuits, are lower than those at the federal level.
Additionally, state level action has been more effective, according to Viljoen, because attorneys general have “had more expertise,” “more capacity and more appetite for bringing privacy based consumer protection cases.”
“As the problem suddenly grew larger and more pervasive, [attorneys general are] really the people who have expertise and track records of success in bringing these kinds of claims,” Viljoen said.
Viljoen said that while state level action was effective and that the settlement with Google is a “first step,” she emphasized the need for federal regulation to cement more help for consumers.
“The goal should be to develop more substantive regulation,” Viljoen said. “And place … substantive limits on location information, just given how valuable and how sensitive it is.”
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