A coalition of European consumer organizations has accused Google of tricking people into letting it track their location, and at least eight of the groups are filing complaints against the company under the EU’s strict new privacy laws.
The complaints are based on the findings of the Norwegian Consumer Council, released Tuesday, regarding Google’s location-tracking systems. The council said the tracking was particularly hard to avoid for users of Android smartphones, for which Google provides the operating system.
The issue has hit the headlines over the last year, initially thanks to tip-offs provided by Google nemesis Oracle. Regulators from Australia to Arizona have since been looking into it, and now it’s becoming a big issue in Europe, where the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), in force as of May this year, allows for fines of up to 4% of global annual revenue.
According to the Norwegian watchdog, Google “tricks” people into sharing their location with the company, in ways that mean it does not really have their informed consent. The Consumer Council highlighted techniques including “hidden default settings,” “misleading information” about how collected data is used, repeated “nudging” to turn on the Location History feature, and users being forced to turn on location tracking if they want to use the Google Assistant.
If Google does not have the level of consent required by the GDPR, and also cannot—as is alleged—say it has a “legitimate interest” to collect and process people’s location data, then it could fall foul of the regulation and face major sanctions.
The consumer groups that are complaining are established in Norway, the Netherlands, Greece, Czechia, Slovenia, Poland, Denmark and Sweden—Germany’s VZBV group is also considering trying to get an injunction against Google.
“Thanks to the GDPR, users should be in control of their personal data,” said Monique Goyens, the director-general of the European Consumer Organization (BEUC). “Google’s deceptive practices are in breach of the spirit and the letter of this regulation. We need strong, coherent, enforcement of the rules. We can’t have companies pretending to comply but de facto circumventing the law.”
A Google spokesperson denied the allegations, saying that “Location History is turned off by default, and you can edit, delete, or pause it at any time.”
“If it’s on, it helps improve services like predicted traffic on your commute. If you pause it, we make clear that—depending on your individual phone and app settings—we might still collect and use location data to improve your Google experience,” the spokesperson continued. “We enable you to control location data in other ways too, including in a different Google setting called Web & App Activity, and on your device. We’re constantly working to improve our controls, and we’ll be reading this report closely to see if there are things we can take on board.”