Google website through a magnifying glass
Google website through a magnifying glass

Google sued for misleading Aussie users

Australia's competition watchdog has launched legal action against tech giant Google in Federal Court today, alleging the company 'misled' Australians in order to harvest more personal information about them.

The court case, which comes one year after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission completed an 18-month investigation into advertising practices on digital platforms, alleges Australians were not able to give "informed consent" and did not realise Google was planning to harvest more information about them from "non-Google sites" that used the company's advertising technology.

That information may have included "very sensitive and private information," the ACCC warned.

It's understood the lawsuit, if successful, could result in a multimillion-dollar penalty against Google.

ACCC Chair Rod Sims alleges Google misled Australians over privacy changes. Picture: Zak Simmonds
ACCC Chair Rod Sims alleges Google misled Australians over privacy changes. Picture: Zak Simmonds

However, a Google Australia spokeswoman said the company strongly disagreed with the ACCC's claims and intended to "defend our position" in court.

The legal action centres on a change Google made in 2016 to combine information from Google users' accounts with data collected from other websites using DoubleClick advertising technology.

The information has previously not been linked to individual users.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said Google "did not obtain explicit consent" from millions of Australians to make this change, which significantly increased the amount of information collected about users and "the value of its advertising products".

"We are taking this action because 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," Mr Sims said.

"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."

To obtain consent from its users for the change, Google sent notifications between June 2016 and December 2018, saying: "More information will be available in your Google Account making it easier for you to review and control" and "Google will use this information to make ads across the web more relevant for you".

When users clicked 'I agree,' information from websites outside Google was linked to their accounts.


Google also changed its privacy policy in June 2016, removing a statement that it would not "combine DoubleClick cookie information with personal identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent," and instead made it dependent "on your account settings".

The change meant Google could collect information from its users when they visited health websites, for example, used fitness platforms, or looked at products on websites outside Google's own services.

But a Google Australia spokeswoman said the 2016 changes were made to "match the way people use Google products: across many different devices".

"The changes we made were optional and we asked users to consent via prominent and easy-to-understand notifications," she said.

"If a user did not consent, their experience of our products and services remained unchanged. We have cooperated with the ACCC's investigation into this matter."

Even if Google is found to have breached Australian Consumer Law, the company may escape the highest penalties currently available in Australia.

Laws changed in August 2018 to introduce penalties of $10 million, three times the value of the benefit the company received, or 10 per cent of its annual turnover for the past year.


Originally published as Google sued for misleading Aussie users