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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Google can’t shake children’s privacy lawsuit

Children from several states filed suit after a UC Berkeley study revealed thousands of apps Google marketed as being kid-friendly — and therefore not tracking users' data — were, in fact, doing just that.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Google must face claims that it violated federal law which protects children online — and a swath of unjust enrichment and unfair competition laws in several states — by allowing developers to track and collect child users' data without permission.

U.S. District Judge P. Casey Pitts denied in full Google's motion to dismiss claims brought by a group of children who accuse the tech company of violating the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which aims to protect kids from having their personal information collected without parental consent.

The plaintiffs' stated claims, which include unfair competition, unjust enrichment and California privacy violations, aren't preempted by the federal law, Pitts said.

In a 16-page order filed late Tuesday, the judge shot down each of Google's attempts to dodge the lawsuit. Regarding the California privacy claim, for instance, the tech giant argued in part that the claimed privacy intrusion was not, as state law requires, "highly offensive."

Pitts, a Biden appointee, disagreed.

“No matter how un-sensitive or un-intimate the personal information collected here was," he wrote, "the allegation that defendants collected the data in violation of federal law despite representing that their ["designed for families"] program apps did not engage in interest-based advertising suffices to show that defendants’ intrusion upon plaintiffs’ expectation of privacy was highly offensive.”

The six plaintiffs, who are all younger than 13, say Google's advertising company AdMob incorrectly categorized thousands of apps for kids on the Google Play store as being for a "mixed audience," or "not primarily intended for children," meaning the apps didn't adhere to privacy safeguards intended to block apps from collecting young users' data.

When Google tried to toss the claims last September, the company said the suit centers on the conduct of one developer, Tiny Lab. Google learned about Tiny Lab’s conduct from a 2018 study by University of California, Berkeley researchers who found that as many as 2,667 apps may have been incorrectly categorized.

In addition to the California privacy claim, the young plaintiffs brought state claims under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and New York’s General Business Law, plus unjust enrichment claims in both states. 

Pitts determined the claims are not time-barred, as Google argued, because the tracking conduct the plaintiffs claim may have taken place through 2021 or longer.

The plaintiffs also sufficiently pleaded a violation of unfair competition laws in California, Florida and New York, despite what Pitts called a “split of authority” on the issue in the Northern District of California, with no binding Ninth Circuit precedent. He said the plaintiffs adequately pleaded the economic injury they suffered to establish standing, noting the Northern District’s ruling this year in In re Meta Pixel Tax Filing Cases: “Privacy harms involving personal data can constitute an injury to money or property sufficient to provide standing under [California’s Unfair Competition Law].”

Neither party's attorneys responded to requests for comment.

In 2021 Google entered into a settlement with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and agreed to implement policy changes to prevent mischaracterization of child users. 

The tech giant faces similar lawsuits from people who claim it has violated privacy laws. In April, Google finalized a $62 million settlement of claims that it tracks and stores users' location data without consent.

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Business, Civil Rights, Technology

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