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Google settles Arizona consumer privacy lawsuit for $85 million

Google said Arizona's lawsuit was based on "outdated product policies that we changed years ago."

(CN) — One of the largest consumer fraud lawsuits in Arizona history came to an $85 million end Tuesday, with Google dolling out the largest amount per capita it has ever paid for a lawsuit of this kind.

“When I was elected attorney general, I promised Arizonans I would fight for them and hold everyone, including corporations like Google, accountable,” said Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who sued Google in May 2020 claiming the company deceptively nabs user location data in exchange for millions in profit.

According to Brnovich’s office, the investigation started after The Associated Press revealed how Google deceived internet users about its data collection practices and its use of location data. When smartphone users disabled their location history in their phone’s settings, Google continued to track user behavior through settings like “Web & app activity.” And it’s through these so-called “dark patterns” — or coercive software tactics used to manipulate user behavior — that Google could continue collecting data to sell ads.

Through advertisements alone, Google earned $135 billion of its $161 billion revenue in 2019 — all of which it earns through regularly collecting data with or without expressed user consent or knowledge.

Led by attorneys Joseph A. Kanefield, Brunn Roysden and Michael S. Catlett, Brnovich sued Google, outlining a plethora of ways the company violates Arizona’s Consumer Fraud Act. Google faces similar lawsuits in other states, including Indiana, Texas and in the District of Columbia. Yet, in a previous case, a federal judge partially sided with the tech giant.

But in January 2022, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in the Northern District of California tossed two of five claims in a proposed class action accusing Google of harvesting Android users’ app data in the same manner outlined by Brnovich. The plaintiffs said statements like “You can control what data gets saved to your account” in options menus formed the basis of a contractual promise not to collect app data when users hit the “off” button.

But Google argued its “Activity controls” merely explained “what can be saved to a user’s account” and did not make any binding promises. Seeborg agreed, concluding that contractual promises only appeared in Google’s terms of service, not its user account preferences.

Google did not, however, seek to dismiss three other claims, of invasion of privacy, intrusion upon seclusion and violation of the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act — which may be why the company settled with Brnovich for a historic $85 million.

Around the same time as Seeborg's ruling in California, Maricopa County Superior Judge Timothy Thomson partly denied Google’s motion for summary judgment, ruling a jury should decide whether the company failed to properly disclose that it continues tracking users after they disable location sharing.

Per the settlement, $7.75 million goes to Arizona's lawyers. The remaining $77 million and change goes to the state, of which Brnovich will spend $5 million on attorney general education programs for consumer protection issues. The Arizona Legislature will use the rest to fund “education, broadband and internet privacy efforts and purposes."

Under the settlement, Google and Arizona agree the deal does not amount to admissions of wrongdoing or violations of the law on Google's part.

“This case is based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago," said Google spokesperson José Castañeda. "We provide straightforward controls and auto delete options for location data, and are always working to minimize the data we collect. We are pleased to have this matter resolved and will continue to focus our attention on providing useful products for our users.”

Google previously addressed its location data collection practices in blog posts. The company said the lawsuits “mischaracterize and inaccurately describe the settings and controls we provide users over location data.” Google also said its geographic data is “integral” to how smartphones work and that it allows Google to help users navigate around traffic jams, find misplaced phones and locate nearby businesses like pizza shops.

The tech giant said it auto-deletes users’ location data after two years, allows users to erase their location data or stop saving it at any time and offers a Google Maps “incognito mode." The company also promised that it never sells users’ location data to advertisers or anyone else.

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