Google Illegally Used Dark Patterns to Trick Users Into Handing Over Location Data, State AGs Say

Google Illegally Used Dark Patterns to Trick Users Into Handing Over Location Data, State AGs Say
Photo: Alain Jocard, Getty Images

On Monday, attorneys general from Washington D.C., Texas, and at least two other states refocused their sights on Google, claiming the company repeatedly pressures its users to forfeit their location data through dark pattern tactics and other deceptive practices. Altogether, these practices may amount to violations of D.C.’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, and Texas’ Deceptive Trade Practices Consumer Protection Act the lawsuits allege. Washington State and Indiana are expected to file similar suits later today according to D.C. attorney general Karl A. Racine.

Though Google does provide its users some options in their settings to limit the types of data they share, the suit argues these are insufficient, and leave many uncertain just how much they’re giving up to Google.

“Google leads consumers to believe that consumers are in control of whether Google collects and retains information about their location and how that information is used,” the D.C. suit reads. “In reality, consumers who use Google products cannot prevent Google from collecting, storing, and profiting from their location.”

The D.C suit, which claims the alleged unfair and deceptive practices date back to 2014, argues Google’s “near-ubiquity,” in the lives of many users — through the use of Search, Maps, Docs, phone apps, and other digital staples — gives the company an “unprecedented ability to monitor consumers’ daily lives.” Google has a financial incentive to make it difficult for consumers to opt-out of being tracked, the suits allege, due to the potential profits gained from digital advertising. For some context, digital advertising (for which location data is extremely valuable) made up nearly 82% of Google’s total revenue in the third quarter last year.

“The upshot is that Google uses its window into millions of Texans’ personal lives to sell ‘Targeted’ advertising designed to exert the maximum influence over those users,” the Texas lawsuit claims. “In so doing, the Company has reaped spectacular gains at the expense of Texans’ privacy. Indeed, Google has generated hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars of advertising revenues from ads presented to users in Texas alone.”

Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, however in response to a similar 2020 lawsuit brought by Arizona’s attorney general the company pushed back, claiming the state had mischaracterized its services.

Dark patterns, which the suit claims were a crucial part of Google’s alleged deceptive practices, refer to the practice of using design tricks like interface design, and social engineering that takes advantage of behavioural tendencies to manipulate users into doing something that harms themselves. (If you’ve ever seen a clock counting down next in checkout next to that pair of jeans you wanted to buy, that’s an example of dark patterns in use). Lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. and Europe have criticised dark patterns in the past with one group of senators even introducing legislation to ban the practice back in 2019. While federal privacy legislation in the U.S has remained allusive, states have begun to fill the gap with patchwork privacy solutions. That applies to dark patterns as well. Last year, California approved new regulations under the “California’s Consumer Privacy Act” that prohibit dark patterns.

Monday’s lawsuit drew inspiration from a 2018 Associated Press article that determined Google services were storing users’ location data even if those users had turned on privacy settings preventing the company from doing so. The D.C. office launched an investigation not long after that article into Google location tracking practices. In the end, the state determined that, regardless of any particular setting a user picked, they had “no option but to allow the company [Google] to collect, store, and use their location.”

In an emailed statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has led a volley of other suits against Google, went as far as to say the company “systematically lies to millions of consumers in order to stack billions of dollars into its coffers.”

You can read the D.C. lawsuit in its entirety below.