Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court today against Google LLC for deceptive and unfair practices used to obtain users’ location data, which Google then exploits for its lucrative advertising business. Arizona has brought forward this action under the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act to put a stop to Google’s deceptive collection of user data and obtain monetary relief up to and including forcing Google to disgorge gross receipts arising from its Arizona activities.
“While Google users are led to believe they can opt-out of location tracking, the company exploits other avenues to invade personal privacy,” said Attorney General Mark Brnovich. “It’s nearly impossible to stop Google from tracking your movements without your knowledge or consent. This is contrary to the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and even the most innovative companies must operate within the law.”
Google derives the vast majority of its profit through selling advertisements and displaying them to users of Google’s products and services. In 2019, over 80% of Google’s revenues—$135 billion out of $161 billion total—were generated through advertising. Google collects detailed information about its users, including their physical locations, to target users for advertising in a specific geographic location. Google’s collection of location data also allows the tech giant to validate the effectiveness of ads by reporting to advertisers how often online ad clicks are converted into real-world store visits. As outlined in the lawsuit filed by Arizona, Google’s advertising revenues are largely driven by the company’s collection of detailed data about its users, including location information, often done without the users’ consent or knowledge.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office began its consumer fraud investigation of Google in August 2018, following an Associated Press article entitled, “Google tracks your movements, like it or not”, which detailed how users are lulled into a false sense of security, believing Google provided users the ability to actually disable their Location History. Google told users that “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” But as the AP article revealed, this statement was blatantly false — even with Location History off, Google surreptitiously collects location information through other settings such as Web & App Activity and uses that information to sell ads. At the same time, Google’s disclosures regarding Web & App Activity misled users into believing that setting had nothing to do with tracking user location. Google’s account set-up disclosures made no mention of the fact that location information is collected though Web and App Activity, which is defaulted to “on,” until early-to mid-2018.
Arizona’s investigation has also revealed that Google uses deceptive and unfair practices to collect as much user information as possible and makes it exceedingly difficult for users to understand what’s being done with their data, let alone opt-out. Given the lucrative nature of Google’s advertising business, the company goes to great lengths to collect users’ location, including through presenting users with a misleading mess of settings, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the collection of location information. According to Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff, “Google’s proprietary methods enable it to surveil, capture, expand, construct and claim behavioral” data “including data that users intentionally choose not to share.”
The almost 50-page complaint cites extensive testimony from Google employees given under oath and contains nearly 100 additional exhibits, including internal documents that were obtained from Google over the course of the nearly two-year investigation. The public version of the filing redacts certain information that Google has asserted is confidential; the State will be seeking to make more information public consistent with applicable court rules.
The State is being represented by Brunn W. Roysden III, Oramel H. Skinner, Joseph A. Kanefield, Michael S. Catlett, and Christopher Sloot of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office; and David H. Thompson and Peter A. Patterson of Cooper & Kirk, PLLC; Guy Ruttenberg and Michael Eshaghian of Ruttenberg IP Law, APC.