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States accuse Google of tricking users to get location data

Four attorneys general are hauling the search engine behemoth into court in four separate suits

Attorneys general for three other states and the District of Columbia filed lawsuits Monday against Google, alleging that the ubiquitous internet titan collected valuable data about its users' locations through deception.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine takes on Google, fittingly, in D.C. Superior Court, alleging that Google has deceived users about when their location was being tracked since at least 2014. Such data allows Google to create targeted ads, a lucrative business, and Racine says it makes users jump through multiple hoops to turn off location-sharing settings.

He also alleges that Google has used so-called "dark patterns," design elements of its products that intentionally confuse and coerce users into making decisions about location sharing that benefit the company.

In a statement this morning, Racine notes that fellow attorneys general in Indiana, Texas and Washington state are raising similar claims against Google under their states' individual consumer-protection laws.

"Google leads consumers to believe that consumers are in control of whether Google collects and retains information about their location and how that information is used," the complaint in Washington, D.C., alleges. "In reality, consumers who use Google products cannot prevent Google from collecting, storing, and profiting from their location."

Racine says Google can collect location data from its apps and web services even when a device or service has its location sharing services turned off, thanks to a setting known as Web & App Activity that collects and stores location information from internet searches and Google-owned applications.

Another practice the AG calls deceptive is the use of pop-ups on Google devices that ask consumers to share location data and warn that not sharing data can interfere with their devices functioning properly.

The lawsuit cites a 2018 report by the Associated Press that showed how Google tracks user location data even when users have turned off their location sharing settings. Watchdogs in D.C. began investigating Google in 2018 after that report.

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Google's revenue from advertising reached almost $150 billion worldwide in 2020, according to the suit. The suit says such profits rely on Google gathering location data that can help it gather details on user demographics, habits and interests.

"Google has a powerful financial incentive to obscure the details of its location data collection practices and make it difficult for consumers to opt out of being tracked," the complaint states. "Google's ability to amass data about consumers translates to better advertising capabilities and a greater share of the multibillion-dollar advertising market."

Google spokesperson José Castañeda said the company has made changes in recent years to make it easier for users to have control over their location information, including options for users to have their location data automatically deleted on a rolling basis and a 2020 change that made deletion of location data after 18 months the default on new Google accounts.

"The attorneys general are bringing a case based on inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings. We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data," Castañeda said in an email. "We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight."

A similar lawsuit was filed by the Arizona attorney general in 2020, which argued that Google's products for Android devices were designed to confuse users about what information they were sharing with Google in order to provide the company with more data for targeted advertisements.

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The lawsuit cites a 2018 report by the Associated Press that showed how Google tracks user location data even when users have turned off their location sharing settings.