D.C. AG Can Proceed With Location Privacy Case Against Google

Siding against Google, a judge in Washington D.C. refused to dismiss Attorney General Karl Racine's lawsuit alleging that the company misled people about the collection and use of location data.

In a decision issued Wednesday, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Rigsby ruled that the allegations -- if proven true -- could show that Google violated the district's consumer protection law by engaging in unfair and deceptive practices.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by Racine in January, when he alleged that Google's statements about its location privacy settings are “misleading, ambiguous, and incomplete,” and “all but guarantee that consumers will not understand when their location is collected and retained by Google or for what purposes.”

The allegations appear to stem from a 2018 Associated Press report that Google stores location data gleaned from some services, including search and maps, even when users attempt to prevent their data from being collected.

The AP reported that even when the "Location History" setting is turned off, Google still gathers some location data unless people turn off a separate setting -- "Web and App Activity." After that report came out, Google revised a “help” page by adding language informing people that turning off Location History doesn't affect other location services, and that some location data may still be saved.

Racine alleged that his office began probing Google's location tracking practices after that AP report. That probe “revealed that Google also offers other settings that purport to give consumers control over the location data Google collects and uses,” the complaint alleged.

Google urged Rigsby to dismiss the lawsuit at an early stage for several reasons. Among others, Google argued that misstatements only violate the district's consumer protection law when they're “material” -- meaning they're important enough to influence consumers' decisions.

Google contended that any alleged misrepresentations regarding location privacy wouldn't have been sufficiently important to consumers to be material.

Rigsby rejected that argument.

“The court determines that a reasonable person could find the information important,” he wrote.

Google also argued Racine's claim regarding “unfair” business practices should be dismissed, contending that business practices are only unfair if they result in harm to consumers.

Racine rejected that argument as well.

“Based on the trend of courts recognizing privacy rights as capable of receiving substantial injury ... the court decides that there is enough of a showing of substantial injury to move forward,” he wrote.

Racine isn't the only one suing Google over location data. Attorneys general in Texas, Washington state and Indiana brought nearly identical lawsuits against Google the same day Racine unveiled his complaint.

The Arizona attorney general brought a similar case in 2020, which is currently pending. The company also faces a consumer class-action in federal court in the Northern District of California.

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