ACCC takes on Google in court, but what can you do to stay private online?
One of the big tech news stories to break recently was the Australian Consumer And Competition Commission’s decision to take search giant Google to court.
The ACCC alleges that Google “misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent, about its move in 2016 to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads.”
Which all sounds very legalese, but what it boils down to is the ACCC alleging that Google wasn’t quite upfront enough about the changes it made a few years back around the way that it harvests users’ data when they use its services. Prior to 2016, according to the ACCC, Google only really tracked user activity on its own sites – services like Google Search and YouTube – and not across the wider web. Thanks to its ownership of at-one-time-rival DoubleClick, it could expand its ability to more directly track users across a lot, if not all of their web activity.
For its part, Google refutes the allegations, saying that it’s played within the letter of the law, and no doubt that is a matter that will very slowly grind its way through the courts. Presuming the ACCC gains some kind of victory eventually, it could lead to more disclosure on individual web sites as and when you land on them, similar to the way websites work in the EU. If you’ve ever travelled through the EU and gone online, you will have quickly realised that many sites require an explicit acceptance of tracking cookies, thanks to an EU law called the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Australia doesn’t have a GDPR equivalent, but this could be a slow first step towards that kind of transparency.
Many people seem to just assume that Google knows and tracks everything, and it is very much the price you pay for using its services. You’re not paying in subscription terms – mostly – but instead by making yourself a more attractive target to advertisers, because Google can more directly frame ads likely to be of interest to you. For many of us that’s a bargain we’re happy enough with, and if it does fuss you, it’s always feasible to use more privacy-centric browsers such as Firefox or specific cookie-blocking extensions to your browser to limit this kind of activity.
No matter which side of the privacy fence you sit on, it’s worth actually checking what Google knows about you, or at least what it thinks it knows about you. Google provides a simple tool for this purpose within your Google account to check this. Once you’re signed into your Google account – signified in Chrome on a Google page for example by your account icon coming up in the top right hand corner – head to myaccount.google.com and click on “Manage Your Data And Personalisation”.
From there you can check where Google’s tracked your movements on that browser, as well as your ad preferences, which provide an interesting if not always accurate view of what Google thinks that you’re keen on. For example, within my own profile, Google reckons I like Sci-Fi & Fantasy TV shows – accurate enough – but also that I’m keen on sports, and Rugby in particular. Sorry Google, but I’m not in any way interested in Rugby, so I don’t know where that’s come up from.
The My Account portal is also where you can track Google’s location history of you. Depending on your mix of devices and where you’ve logged into a Google account, this could have just a little bit of data on you – or possibly a whole heaping load if you’re using an Android device and constantly use Google Maps, for example.
Again, though, while accessing this data for the first time can be a little eye opening and sometimes alarming, it’s also a useful reminder of the deal that Google strikes. As a user of its services, you’re not actually a Google “customer” to speak of, unless you’re paying for additional services like Google One or YouTube Music. Google’s primary customers are its advertising partners, and they’re paying for the information that you trade to Google every time you search, use Google Maps or watch a YouTube video.