MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General Susanne Young recently announced that the state will receive $4 million from a multistate settlement with Google over its location tracking practices.
The settlement, announced Nov. 14, also requires Google to be more transparent with consumers about its practices, including giving users detailed information about the types of location data Google collects and how it’s used. The settlement was negotiated by a coalition of 40 attorneys general and totals $391.5 million. It is the largest multistate privacy settlement negotiated by attorneys general in history.
“Vermonters deserve to make informed decisions about how their location data is being tracked,” said Young in a statement. “This settlement highlights the importance of protecting consumer privacy and demonstrates that the Attorney General’s Office will continue to hold companies accountable for disregarding the privacy concerns of Vermonters and violating the law.”
The ACLU of Vermont saw the ruling as a progressive win in fighting predatory technological practices, and said that the group would use it as a springboard for future efforts in the Green Mountain State.
“The ACLU of Vermont strongly supports efforts to protect the privacy of Vermonters and celebrates this victory that will keep people better informed about how their personal information is being used,” said Stephanie Gomory, communications director at the ACLU of Vermont. “We look forward to working with state leaders to ensure that Vermont is a leader in defending privacy rights in a world of increasingly invasive technology.”
Google this month said it had already corrected some of the practices mentioned in the settlement.
“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” said Jose Castaneda, a spokesman for the company.
Location data is a key part of Google’s digital advertising business. Google uses the personal and behavioral data it collects to build detailed user profiles and target ads on behalf of its advertising customers, making location data among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects. Even a limited amount of location data can expose a person’s identity and routines, and can be used to infer personal details.
The attorneys general opened the Google investigation after a 2018 Associated Press article that revealed Google “records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.”
The AP article focused on two Google account settings: location history, and web and app activity. Location history is “off” unless a user turns on the setting, but web and app activity, a separate account setting, is automatically “on” when users set up a Google account, including all Android phone users.
As detailed in the settlement, the attorneys general found that Google has violated state consumer protection laws by misleading consumers about its location tracking practices since at least 2014. Specifically, Google caused users to be confused about the scope of the location history setting, the fact that the web and app activity setting existed and also collected location information, and the extent to which consumers who use Google products and services could limit Google’s location tracking by adjusting their account and device settings.
The settlement requires Google to be more transparent with consumers about its practices. Google must:
show additional information to users whenever they turn a location-related account setting “on” or “off”;
make key information about location tracking unavoidable for users (i.e., not hidden);
and give users detailed information about the types of location data Google collects and how it’s used at an enhanced “location technologies” webpage.
The settlement also limits Google’s use and storage of certain types of location information and requires Google account controls to be more user-friendly.
A copy of the settlement is available at ago.vermont.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/2022.11.14-Google-VT-AVC.pdf.