News & Analysis

Google Fined for Location Tracking

The search engine giant has been facing an increasing number of legal cases involving privacy and antitrust moves in recent times

Google has been at the receiving end of a slew of investigations and settlements in recent times. Close on the heels of India’s Competition Commission (CCI) fining the company $162 million (Rs.1337 crore) for antitrust behavior, the search giant is now paying out $391.5 million to 40 states in the US to settle a case involving user location tracking. 


The attorneys of these states announced that the settlement was arrived at for an investigation that was sparked off by a 2018 report by Associated Press which indicated that Google tracked people’s location data despite their opting out of such an activity when they disable the location history feature on their devices. 


The biggest multistate settlement in history

This is the largest multistate settlement in US history in a case involving privacy and comes at a time when users are getting increasingly perturbed by surveillance concerns from tech giants, an issue that has attracted outrage from political parties as well as regulators. The US Supreme Court had ruled in June that constitutional protections for abortion raised potential privacy concerns for women seeking the procedure or related information online. 


A report from Associated Press published in ET quoted a statement by Connecticut Attorney General William Tong to state that the appellants felt location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information that Google collects and consumers could have more than one reason to decide to opt out of tracking. 


In fact, the report says Tong asked Google users to be more responsible and check their online settings to turn them off when they do not want them to be tracked. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that we live in a surveillance economy. Understand that you’re being tracked every minute of every day where you are,” he told the media. 


CCI pillories Google over antitrust issues

Readers would recall that India’s antitrust watchdog charged Google with abusing its dominance while licensing its operating systems for smartphones and the app store market, besides web search services and online video hosting platforms among other things. 


The CCI also issued a cease and desist order on the tech giant over a slew of business practices such as denial of access to Play Services plugins to some OEMs or linking Google Search as a requirement for licensing of Play Store to OEMs. 


Google now says all of this is fixed

Coming to the issue that Google has faced in the US, the company revealed that it had made several improvements in recent years. A company spokesperson even claimed that the probes conducted by the State attorneys were based on outdated product policies that had been changed years ago. Of course, one can’t fathom how they agreed to a settlement then! 


As part of the settlement, Google agreed to make those practices more transparent to users such as showing them additional information when turning the location on or off as well as keeping a webpage live that provides user information about the data Google collects as a regular routine. 


Location data is the biggest revenue source

Readers would be aware that location traffic is used by tech giants to sell digital ads to brands seeking to connect with their consumers in their vicinity. It uses data to generate business of more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue for Google, making it the most valuable of services that its corporate parent Alphabet owns. 


Now, coming back to the 2018 report, Associated Press had reported that several Google services on Android devices and iPhones store collected user location data even when they had used a privacy setting to prevent it from doing so. Researchers at Princeton University had confirmed these findings for the wire agency. 


The report had said that Google’s tracking affected 2 billion users that run Android OS besides hundreds of millions of iPhone users who use Google maps and search. The attorneys also made the point that Google was profiting from using location data for its own revenue growth whereas for users it tantamount to an invasion of their privacy.  

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