Australia's anti-competition watchdog on Monday launched federal court proceedings against Google, alleging that the subsidiary of Sundar Pichai-run Alphabet misled consumers to obtain their consent to expand the scope of personal data and earn more via targeted advertising.
The conduct is likely to impact millions of Australians with Google accounts as the Search engine giant could collect and combine personal data about consumers' internet activity, for other use by the company, including for targeted advertising.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleged in a statement that Google misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent in 2016.
The company then started combining personal information in consumers' Google accounts with information about those individuals' activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads.
It meant that this data about users' non-Google online activity became linked to their names and other identifying information held by Google.
Previously, this information had been kept separately from users' Google accounts, meaning the data was not linked to an individual user, according to the ACCC.
Google was yet to address the concerns raised by the ACCC.
"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," said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.
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. It then used this information to serve up highly targeted advertisements without consumers' express informed consent," Sims added.
The use of this new combined information allowed Google to significantly increase "the value of its advertising products", from which it generated much higher profits.
"The ACCC considers that consumers effectively pay for Google's services with their data, so this change introduced by Google increased the "price" of Google's services, without consumers' knowledge
From June 28, 2016 until at least December 2018, Google account holders were prompted to click "I agree" to a pop-up notification from Google that purported to explain how it planned to combine their data, and sought the consumers' consent for this.
The notification also stated, "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."
Before June 2016, Google only collected and used, for advertising purposes, personally identifiable information about Google account users' activities on Google owned services and apps like Google Search and YouTube.
The ACCC alleged that the "I agree" notification was misleading, because consumers could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used, and so did not - and could not - give informed consent.
"We believe that many consumers, if given an informed choice, may have refused Google permission to combine and use such a wide array of their personal information for Google's own financial benefit," said Sims.
In 2008, Google acquired DoubleClick, a supplier of ad-serving technology services to publishers and advertisers.
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