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‘Conduct liable to mislead’: Federal Court slaps Google with massive $60 million fine

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Google has agreed to pay $60 million in penalties flowing from a long-running court fight with the Australian competition watchdog over the tech giant misleading users on the collection of personal location data.

In April last year, the Federal Court of Australia found Google breached consumer law by misleading some local users into thinking the company was not collecting personal data about their location via mobile devices with Android operating systems.

The case revolved around whether it was sufficiently clear Google would still collect and access location data when a user’s location history was set to “off”, but their web and app activity setting was “on” by default.

The company was also found in breach of two other consumer laws concerning conduct liable to mislead the public and making misleading representations about a service’s performance characteristics.

On Friday, a brief Federal Court hearing was told a $60 million penalty was agreed as “fair and reasonable” between Google and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and that a joint submission had been submitted to Justice Thomas Thawley.

The court heard possible issues still in play were whether the penalty made future conduct “economically irrational” and if the penalty was suitable.

Justice Thawley said he was satisfied the fine was in an appropriate range.

In handing down judgment, Justice Thawley clarified that Google was fined for three breaches of Australian Consumer Law, and that the $60 million total fines comprised two penalties of $10 million and one of $40 million.

The judge ordered that Google pay 50 per cent of the ACCC’s court costs up to April 16, 2021.

He also directed Google to review its existing compliance program, make changes where necessary, and monitor the compliance for three years.

ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said the court’s penalty sends sends a strong message to digital platforms and other businesses not to mislead consumers about how their data is being collected and used.

Google was able to use data collected through the web and app activity setting to target ads to some consumers, even if they had the location history setting turned off.

‘Misleading representations’

“Personal location data is sensitive and important to some consumers, and some of the users who saw the representations may have made different choices about the collection, storage and use of their location data if the misleading representations had not been made by Google,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said in a statement.

The ACCC estimated that the users of 1.3 million Google accounts in Australia may have viewed a screen found by the court to have breached consumer law.

Google said the case was about language used in settings from 2017-18 and was amended by the end of 2018, before the ACCC began proceedings.

“We’ve invested heavily in making location information simple to manage and easy to understand with industry-first tools like auto-delete controls, while significantly minimising the amount of data stored,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“We’re committed to making ongoing updates that give users control and transparency, while providing the most helpful products possible.”

-AAP

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