AG more than doubles Washington recovery by rejecting multistate settlement and taking on Google alone
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced Google will pay $39.9 million to Washington state as a result of his office’s lawsuit over misleading location tracking practices. Google will also implement a slate of court-ordered reforms to increase transparency about its location tracking settings.
Ferguson’s lawsuit against Google asserted that the tech giant deceptively led consumers to believe that they have control over how Google collects and uses their location data. In reality, consumers could not effectively prevent Google from collecting, storing and profiting from their location data.
Ferguson investigated Google’s conduct as part of a multistate effort. Instead of joining a multistate settlement, Ferguson’s office independently filed its own lawsuit and obtained this resolution. The Attorney General’s Office estimates Washington received more than double the amount it would have received under the wider multistate settlement.
“Google denied Washington consumers the ability to choose whether the company could track their sensitive location data, deceived them about their privacy options and profited from that conduct,” Ferguson said. “Today’s resolution holds one of the most powerful corporations accountable for its unethical and unlawful tactics.”
In addition to paying nearly $40 million, the legally binding consent decree, filed in King County Superior Court, requires Google to be more transparent with consumers about how it tracks and uses consumer data. Under this consent decree, Google must:
- Show additional information to users whenever they enable a location-related account setting by describing the sources, purposes and retention of relevant location data;
- Ensure users see information about location tracking; and
- Give users detailed information at an enhanced “Location Technologies” webpage about the types of location data Google collects and how it will use that data.
Ferguson investigated Google’s conduct as part of a multistate effort to hold it accountable for its location tracking practices in the wake of reports of the company’s misleading “Web and App Activity” setting. Ferguson’s office independently filed a lawsuit and obtained a resolution separate from a multistate legal action. As a result, the Attorney General’s Office estimates Washington received double the amount it would have received under the wider multistate settlement.
The Attorney General’s Office will use money from the resolution to continue enforcement of the Consumer Protection Act and take more actions to protect Washingtonians’ data privacy. The Consumer Protection Division receives minimal general fund support and largely funds itself through recoveries in cases like this.
In January 2022, Ferguson filed a lawsuit asserting Google uses a number of deceptive and unfair practices to obtain users’ “consent” to be tracked. As a result, it is nearly impossible for users to stop Google from collecting their location data.
Google’s conduct included:
- Collecting location data even when consumers disabled “Location History;”
- Misleading descriptions of location settings;
- Tracking Android devices, even with location access turned off;
- Repeatedly nudging users to consent to location tracking;
- Wrongly claiming certain products would not function unless location was enabled; and
- Incomplete disclosures of Google’s location data collection.
Google profits significantly from using consumer data to sell advertising. In 2020, Google made nearly $150 billion from advertising. Location data is key to Google’s advertising business. Consequently, it has a financial incentive to dissuade users from withholding access to that data.
When users enable a setting called “Location History,” Google saves data on users’ location to, as it says in its account settings, “give you personalized maps, recommendations based on places you've visited, and more.”
Google told users that when Location History was disabled, the company did not continue to store the user’s location. For years, Google’s help page stated, “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” That statement was false. For example, the company collects location data under a separate setting — “Web & App Activity” — that is defaulted “on” for all Google Accounts.
In August 2018, the Associated Press published a story about the confusing Location History and Web & App Activity settings. “Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to,” the AP reported. “Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.”
In May 2022, Ferguson defeated Google’s attempt to end the lawsuit when a King County Superior Court judge blocked the tech giant’s motion to dismiss.
Assistant attorneys general Andrea Alegrett, Dan Davies, Kathleen Box, Ben Brysacz and Rabi Lahiri, as well as paralegal Judy Lim and legal assistant Jennifer Marin, are handling the case for Washington.
Other actions against Google
In April, Ferguson partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice and a bipartisan group of attorneys general in an antitrust lawsuit aimed at breaking up Google’s monopolization of display advertising. The lawsuit asserts Google’s dominance of the online display advertising market has allowed it to funnel more business through its services, resulting in websites earning less and advertisers paying more.
In December 2020, Ferguson and a bipartisan coalition of 38 attorneys general filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against Google. The lawsuit asserts that Google illegally leverages its dominance in the online search and search advertising markets to stifle competing platforms, drive advertisers away from rival search engines, and limit competing specialized sellers’ ability to bring customers directly to their sites from general Google search results.
In June 2021, Ferguson announced Google paid $423,659.76 to Washington’s Public Disclosure Transparency Account for violating the state’s campaign finance disclosure law, which Washingtonians adopted by initiative in 1972. This was the second lawsuit against Google for similar violations. In 2018, Google paid Washington state $217,000 to resolve Ferguson’s lawsuit accusing the company of violating Washington campaign finance disclosure laws that require political advertisers to maintain information about those who purchase advertising and make that information available to the public.
Washington’s Attorney General serves the people and the state of Washington. As the state’s largest law firm, the Attorney General’s Office provides legal representation to every state agency, board, and commission in Washington. Additionally, the Office serves the people directly by enforcing consumer protection, civil rights, and environmental protection laws. The Office also prosecutes elder abuse, Medicaid fraud, and handles sexually violent predator cases in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; firstname.lastname@example.org
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