ACCC Wins Federal Court Privacy Case Against Google


The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) won a Federal Court case against Google LLC and Google Australia Pty Ltd on Friday, April 16. Justice Thomas Thawley found that Google misled consumers about personal location data collection.

Justice Thawley found users accessing Google via Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018 were not properly informed that leaving the Web & App Activity setting switched ‘on’ would allow Google to collect, store and use their personally identifiable location data. This was despite many users reasonably believing turning their device’s Location History setting ‘off’ would prevent Google from doing so.

“Today’s decision is an important step to make sure digital platforms are upfront with consumers about what is happening with their data and what they can do to protect it,” says the ACCC’s Chairman, Rod Sims.

The argument centred around what Google users could reasonably be expected to know when setting up a Google account. The ACCC argued Google mislead users that by merely switching off the device’s Location History setting, Google would not track them. However, Google continued to collect personal data unless the user also turned ‘off’ the same function in the Web & App Activity setting. The ACCC contended Google did not properly advise this, contravening multiple sections of the Australian Consumer Law.

In the first judgement of its type in the world, Justice Thawley said;

“Google’s conduct assessed as a whole conveyed a representation that having Web & App Activity turned ‘on’ would not allow Google to obtain, retain, and use personal data bout the user’s location.

“I am satisfied Google’s conduct as a whole was misleading or deceptive of ordinary members of the public.”

The Federal Court case used different scenarios and different classes of Google users to establish that Google’s conduct was misleading.

“Companies that collect information must explain their settings clearly and transparently, so consumers are not misled. Consumers should not be kept in the dark when it comes to the collection of their personal location data,” says Professor Sims.

Jurisdictions worldwide with an eye to reining in Google’s watched the case closely. The ACCC’s win is significant because it has the potential to curtail Google’s core business of data collection. Google generates advertising information out of personal data. The more data Google can sell, the greater the revenue.

Each breach of the relevant legislation by Google carries a penalty over AU$1 million. Justice Thawley will rule on penalties at a later date. Google has indicated it may appeal the judgement.