A bipartisan group of attorneys general sued Google on Monday, alleging that the technology giant has used “dark patterns” and deceptive practices to track users’ physical location even when those users have made efforts to block Google from doing so.
The parallel lawsuits by the District of Columbia, Texas, Indiana and Washington state zero in on Google’s collection of location data, which can be used to target advertising and build profiles on internet users.
The DC Attorney General’s lawsuit alleges that since 2014, Google (GOOG) has made misleading public statements about how users can opt out of location tracking. Despite offering settings in users’ Google accounts that promised to restrict location data tracking, Google allegedly failed to mention how certain other settings — such as in individual apps or in other areas of Google’s settings panel — might continue to allow the tech giant to keep collecting location data unbeknownst to the user.
According to the complaint, Google also allegedly tried to circumvent users’ expressed preferences with workarounds, such as using IP addresses to determine a user’s location or collecting location data via Google’s apps installed on mobile devices. The allegedly illegal behavior affects virtually all mobile users who interact with Google, according to the complaint, whether they own an Android device, an iPhone, a PC or a tablet.
To facilitate its data collection, Google allegedly relied on “dark patterns” — subtle design choices intended to guide users toward adopting behavior favorable to Google.
“Google makes extensive use of dark patterns,” the complaint reads, “including repeated nudging, misleading pressure tactics, and evasive and deceptive descriptions of location features and settings, to cause users to provide more and more location data (inadvertently or out of frustration).”
In a statement Monday, Google spokesman José Castañeda said the lawsuits were based on “inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings.”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. “We will vigorously defend ourselves and set the record straight.”
In 2019, Google launched a feature that would, if enabled, automatically delete account activity data after a certain period of time. The following year, Google said it would expand that feature by enabling it by default for all new accounts created on its platform. Monday’s lawsuits, however, target Google conduct that predates those changes.
Earlier this year, a state judge in Arizona declined to issue summary judgement in a similar case brought by Arizona officials against Google, saying that it was not an “obvious and straightforward” conclusion that Google misled or deceived consumers.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction blocking Google’s allegedly illegal conduct and disgorgement of profits linked to the allegedly misleading practices.