“Googleplex”, Google Headquarters, Mountain View, California. Google logo on the office building is in this photo.

An Australian court ruled Friday that Google misled consumers about collecting location data through Android mobile devices in what the country’s competition watchdog called a “world-first” action against the digital giant.

The federal court found that Google violated Australian consumer law by collecting the “Location History” of some users even when they had opted out of sharing that information.

It also said Google failed to make clear to users that allowing tracking of “Web & App Activity” on their phones would also give permission to retain the location data.

Numerous studies around the world have documented the problem of location data being gathered through Android and iPhone devices even after users believe they have chosen not to allow the tracking.

Such data can be highly valuable to advertisers trying to pitch location-related products and services.

But the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which brought the court case against Google, said Friday’s ruling was “a world-first enforcement action” on the issue.

“This is an important victory for consumers, especially anyone concerned about their privacy online, as the court’s decision sends a strong message to Google and others that big businesses must not mislead their customers,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.

“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,” he said.

In his ruling, Federal Court Judge Thomas Thawley “partially” accepted the ACCC case against Google, noting that the company’s “conduct would not have misled all reasonable users” of its service.

But he added that Google’s action “misled or was likely to mislead some reasonable users” and that “the number or proportion of reasonable users who were misled, or were likely to have been misled, does not matter” in establishing contraventions of the law.

The ACCC said it would seek “pecuniary penalties” and other remedial actions to be determined later.

Google protested the ruling, which it noted had rejected some of the ACCC’s “broad claims” against it and concerned only a narrowly defined class of users.

“We disagree with the remaining findings and are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal,” a spokesperson said.

“We provide robust controls for location data and are always looking to do more — for example we recently introduced auto delete options for Location History, making it even easier to control your data,” they said.

Last year, Google was targeted alongside Facebook by the ACCC for failing to compensate Australian news organisations for content posted to their platforms.

The dispute led to landmark legislation requiring digital firms to pay for news and resulted in Google and Facebook signing deals worth millions of dollars to Australian media companies.


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