News, Culture & Society

Millions of Australians may have had information taken by Google as ACCC launches legal battle

Millions of Australians have had ‘sensitive and private information’ taken by Google without their consent, claims an Australian consumer watchdog.

Legal action, which could see the tech giant forced to pay out millions of dollars, has been launched by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Google is accused of using millions of users data without their consent, gathering it from other websites to use for lucrative targeted advertising. 

The ACCC claims this occurred between June 2016 until at least December 2018, and had caused ‘significant harm’ to Australians using Google mail or app accounts.

The internet giant has denied any wrongdoing and intends to fight the allegations in the Federal Court. 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission alleges Google took private information from users without their consent (file image)

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the watchdog was seeking a multi-million dollar fine against Google alleging the tech giant misled consumers when it changed its data collection technology in 2016.

‘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,’ he said on Monday.  

‘Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis. 

‘This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites.’  

Before June 2016, Google only collected and used personally identifiable information about their account users’ activities on its owned services and apps for advertising purposes. 

But the new changes meant Google could combine this with more personal information from users on non-Google websites and apps.

This would then be used to give the user more targeted ads, generating higher profits for Google. 

Google made changes to its data collection technology in 2016 but the ACCC says users would not have understood what this would mean for their private information

Google made changes to its data collection technology in 2016 but the ACCC says users would not have understood what this would mean for their private information

Google users were prompted with an ‘I agree’ pop up to consent to the changes but Mr Sims said there was no way Australians could have properly understood what this meant.

The pop up said: ‘We’ve introduced some optional features for your account, giving you more control over the data Google collects and how it’s used, while allowing Google to show you more relevant ads.’

But Mr Sims said Australians would not have agreed to this if they were properly informed. 

‘We believe that many consumers, if given an informed choice, may have refused Google permission to combine and use such a wide array of their personal information for Google’s own financial benefit,’ he said.

He also said the ACCC conducted surveys with results finding 80 per cent of surveys didn’t want their web activity combined with their personal information, The Australian reported.

‘Since we’ve been working on this, we’ve had more issues coming up,’ he told the publication.

‘And we’ll make judgments about issues we see, either under competition law or consumer law, where we think there’s real harm and where we think they matter. It’s fair to say there’ll be more.’    

ACCC chairman Rod Sims says Google's changes in 2016 impacted millions of Australians as they seek to fine the tech giant millions of dollars

ACCC chairman Rod Sims says Google’s changes in 2016 impacted millions of Australians as they seek to fine the tech giant millions of dollars

The ACCC alleges Google did not obtain explicit consent from consumers and profited from changing their data technology.

‘The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits,’ Mr Sims added.

‘The ACCC considers that consumers effectively pay for Google’s services with their data, so this change introduced by Google increased the ‘price’ of Google’s services, without consumers’ knowledge.’  

Google strongly disagrees with the allegations and will defend its position in court.

‘The changes we made were optional and we asked users to consent via prominent and easy-to-understand notifications,’ a spokesperson said.

‘If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged.’

Internet giant Google has denied any wrongdoing and plans to fight the allegations

Internet giant Google has denied any wrongdoing and plans to fight the allegations

Federal Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said consumers deserved protection from invasive advertising.

‘Anyone who has experienced that spooky feeling of being served targeted ads after browsing the internet should welcome moves by the ACCC to ensure that Australian law is being upheld,’ she told AAP.

‘Sometimes targeted advertising can be handy, but it can sometimes feel invasive. The main thing is that consumers understand and consent to how their data gets used.’

Google operates sites including Google Chrome, Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps and Google Play. 

HOW GOOGLE ALLEGEDLY ACCESSED PRIVATE INFORMATION 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission alleges Google failed to inform its users or gain consent before collecting data on non-Google sites and apps

Before June 2016, Google only collected personally identifiable information about their account users’ activities on its owned services and apps for advertising purposes

But the new changes meant Google could combine this with more personal information from users on non-Google websites and apps

This would then be used to give the user more targeted ads, generating higher profits for Google 

Users were prompted with an ‘I agree’ pop up to the new changes

The pop up said: ‘We’ve introduced some optional features for your account, giving you more control over the data Google collects and how it’s used, while allowing Google to show you more relevant ads’

The ACCC chairman Rod Sims said Australians would not have understood how the changes would affect their personal data

ACCC said millions of Australians would have been affected between June 2016 until at least December 2018

Google strongly disagrees with the allegations and will defend its position in court 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk