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Google Misled Consumers Over Location Tracking, Australia Says

SYDNEY, Australia — Australian regulators on Tuesday accused Google of misleading consumers about its collection of their personal location information through its Android mobile operating system, the latest government action against a tech company over its handling of vast quantities of user data.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission alleged in a lawsuit that Google falsely led users to believe that disabling the “Location History” setting on Android phones would stop the company from collecting their location data. But users were actually required to also turn off a second setting, “Web and App Activity,” that was enabled by default.

Google did not properly disclose the need to disable both settings from January 2017 until late 2018, the suit alleges. The company changed its user guidance after The Associated Press revealed in August 2018 that it was continuing to collect the data even after the Location History setting was switched off.

The commission also said that while Google made it clear to users what features they would lose by turning off location services, the company did not inform them adequately about what it would do with the data collected.

“This is part of a system of not being able to make informed choices about what’s being done with your data,” said Rod Sims, the commission’s chairman.

Mr. Sims called the lawsuit the first of its kind by a national government against a tech company over its use of personal data. The agency is seeking what he called significant financial penalties against Google, among other corrective measures. He added that he hoped the case would raise awareness among consumers over how much data is being collected.

“We need to be getting ahead of them, because this is a whole new world,” he said of data collection issues.

A Google spokeswoman said in a statement that the company was reviewing the allegations. She said Google would continue to engage with the commission over its concerns but intended to defend itself.

The action by Australian regulators comes as governments and consumer groups around the world have expressed growing concern about the power of tech companies, including their collection of personal data from devices that are indispensable to the lives of billions of people.

Consumer groups from several European countries had already sued Google over the location tracking issue under a comprehensive data privacy law adopted in Europe last year. Under that law, a French agency fined Google 50 million euros, or about $55 million, in January for not properly disclosing to users how it collected data to create personalized ads.

In the United States, regulators approved a $5 billion fine against Facebook this year over its role in allowing Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, to gain access to private information on more than 50 million Facebook users.

While Google has made changes to Android in later iterations that limit the location data it gathers, the business incentives for collecting as much personal data as possible remain great. Location-targeted advertising is worth an estimated $21 billion a year, and Google, along with Facebook, dominates the mobile ad market.

The Australian lawsuit is in part the product of a 19-month investigation by the consumer commission into the market power of Google and Facebook. It issued 23 recommendations, including an overhaul of privacy laws, to limit their reach and force them to take more responsibility for the content they disseminate.

The Australian government has also passed legislation challenging the power of tech companies, including a law in 2018 that compelled tech-industry giants to disable encryption. And under a new law criminalizing “abhorrent violent material” online, Australia is using the threat of fines and jail time to pressure platforms like Facebook to block such content, and it is moving to take down websites that hold any illegal content.

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