EU Consumer Groups Rally Against Google's Tracking Practices


Several consumer groups in the European Union rallied against Google's user-tracking practices, having announced their intentions to file complaints with their national privacy authorities on Tuesday, alleging Alphabet's subsidiary broke numerous provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation. The agencies in question are those of the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Norway, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and Slovenia. German consumer watchdog Verbraucherzentrale is also considering legal action against Google for the same reasons and is presently pondering filing for an injunction based on select GDPR stipulations, according to the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) to which the groups in question belong to.

At the same time, the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, a US-EU forum focused on consumer policies, pledged to inform the Federal Trade Commission of the ordeal and highlight Google's suspect user-tracking practices in the company's home country. The new wave of complaints is largely based on a new research paper published by BEUC member Forbrukerrådet which saw the Norwegian watchdog accuse the American technology giant of resorting to "various tricks and practices" in order to ensure as many of its users enable as many data-tracking features of their smartphones and other devices as possible. The dishonest practices are alleged to be in violation of GDPR as they tricked users into enabling certain privacy-invading tracking features under false pretenses, the newly published research suggests.

Besides being uninformative and misleading, Google's practices aimed at enticing consumers to agree to to widespread tracking have also been devised primarily for the purpose of turning a profit via targeted advertising, researchers added, concluding that users have no real choice when it comes to handling many options from the privacy settings of their Google Accounts. As Google has no legal ground to collect such sheer volume of information and is pushing its allegedly intrusive practices in a highly aggressive manner, it's in violation of numerous GDPR clauses, the groups argue. Monique Goyens, Director General of The European Consumer Organisation, criticized Google's "data hunger," with the watchdog consortium itself vowing to put an end to "consumer exploitation." Google has yet to comment on the development in any capacity.


Background: The new turn of events comes on the heels of numerous regulatory issues Google endured on the Old Continent over the course of this year. Several months back, the European Commission hit the company with its largest-ever antitrust fine amounting to the equivalent of some $5 billion over antitrust violations related to its efforts to promote its first-party Android apps. Following an investigation that spanned around half a decade, the EC concluded Google's practices directly hurt competing app developers, stating that the firm hence abused the dominance of the Android operating system which currently accounts for over 85-percent of active smartphones in the world, according to every major industry tracker.

On the privacy side of things, media reports from this summer accused Google of dishonest user-tracking practices, particularly those associated with Android smartphones and tablets. While the company repeatedly dismissed the allegations as baseless, the wave of reporting prompted a number of investigations and lawsuits in the United States. New Mexico and Arizona are among the states that have already taken action against Google over the matter, with the former recently suing the company over illegal tracking of children. Privacy concerns surrounding the firm's practices continued growing after a disclosure that Google+ potentially compromised hundreds of thousands of users due to an oversight that the company decided to cover up as part of an incident so bad that it led to the demise of the struggling social media network confirmed last month.

The Mountain View, California-based Internet juggernaut isn't faring much better on the GDPR front as it managed to get targeted by several day-one complaints launched as soon as the law went into effect in late May. One of the strictest-ever pieces of legislation regulating digital data management requires companies to approach information-gathering activities in a transparent manner, obtain user consent prior to starting any such activities, and inform consumers of how their data will be used, stored, and managed. Being one of the world's most successful examples of ad-based monetization, Google found itself in the crosshairs of many a privacy advocate after GDPR went into effect, with most of the firm's digital products and services collecting user data in one way or another.


Impact: As GDPR still hasn't been properly tested in practice, the potential implications of the new anti-Google initiative formed by over half a dozen European consumer groups are difficult to predict. On paper, the strict regulation allows for fines amounting up to €10 million ($11.29 million) or two percentage points of the violator's annual global revenue, whichever is greater. In Google's case, that could equal a fine in excess of $22 billion, though such a draconian measure is unlikely to be issued, especially for a first-instance offense.

And while this isn't the first occasion on which Google got hit with a GDPR complaint, the potential consequences of the new development reach far beyond Alphabet's subsidiary; BEUC explicitly stated its push against Google is meant to signal the start of more concentrated opposition to all "digital giants" and their intrusive data-collection practices, vowing it's prepared to force them to accept the responsibility to handle user data in a transparent and reasonable manner. How exactly does the initiative intend to do so remains to be seen given how the European Union doesn't rely on a precedent-based law system so even a successful legal push against Google wouldn't make similar efforts against other technology giants more likely to succeed. Likewise, the FTC is unlikely to initiate any new probes into Google on the behest of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue seeing how the said group has little real pull with stateside regulators.

Regardless, BEUC's latest move will undoubtedly attract more negative publicity to Google as the consortium appears adamant to fight what it perceives are predatory and illegal tracking practices in a highly public manner. "Smartphones are being used for spying on our every move," the group wrote in its Tuesday communication, asserting that the current state of affairs "is not the digital society that European consumers want to live in."

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Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]

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