You probably have a Google account, and probably also assume that everything you do on Google’s services is tracked, but do you realise the extent to which Google actively pushes you towards ensuring that you don’t avoid its surveillance practises? The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has directly sought to tackle this issue by announcing that it will be taking action against Google.


The action has been brought about over concerns that Google unfairly directs those who sign up towards an increased amount of surveillance. This is in breach of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (EU GDPR), which encourages privacy by default for consumers. Since being introduced in 2016, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has been a key component of EU privacy law as well as human rights law.


Keep reading to find out more about the action and the reasons behind it.


BEUC action being taken against Google


The coalition taking action includes ten consumer group organisations from a range of countries across Europe. Although the UK organisations which include Citizens Advice and Which? didn’t take action against Google, they are members of the European Consumer Organisation and have retained an identical form of the GDPR regulation despite no longer being an EU member.


The BEUC added that “tens of millions of Europeans have been placed on a fast track to surveillance when they signed up to a Google account”. They argue that the sign up stage is the crucial point when Google asks users to choose how their account privacy will be handled.


The UK is currently in the middle of seeking to reform its data protection regulations with the Data Reform Bill, which was announced in May’s Queen’s Speech.


How does Google’s sign up process lead consumers down a “fast track to surveillance?”


Google is pretty much a permanent presence in all of our lives. Even if you don’t use a Google phone, the chances are that you use Google’s search engine on a fairly regular basis. Other Google services also include their Android mobile operating system, Chrome browser, YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. Gmail and the Google Play Store require an account in order to use them, making the sign-up process which users undergo particularly pertinent for those services. This means it’s in all of our interests to know how our data is being used and that privacy rules are up to scratch.


When users sign up to a Google account, they must indicate preferences on three different settings. This includes:


1. Web and app activity

2. YouTube history

3. Ad personalisation


If users select ‘express personalisation’ rather than ‘manual personalisation’, then this gives Google permission to track everything a user does across its services (web and app activity, YouTube history, ad personality). While express personalisation takes just one step, manual personalisation takes 5 steps. It is therefore unsurprising that consumers would choose express personalisation over manual personalisation. Despite this, it is not possible to switch the express personalisation settings in one step.


After a legal analysis by BEUC and the agency AWO found that Google’s sign-up process is designed to service the interests of the company as well as against EU data protection law in the following ways:


  • No data protection by design and by default
  • Un-transparent and unfair data processing, deceptive design and invalid consent
  • Breaches of purpose limitation, data minimisation and storage limitation principles


According to the BEUC, all of these factors combined created an experience which is in their view, unlawful processing of customers’ personal data. Furthermore, by making the process convoluted when it comes to being able to avoid surveillance “by design and by default”, this is what puts users on a “fast track to surveillance”.


Google’s signup process and the processing of personal data which follows this runs contrary to the EU’s GDPR in a number of ways.


Other ongoing investigations


At the same time that this investigation is going on, a previous investigation by the BEUC which was filed in February 2020 into Google’s use and collection of location data is also continuing. This followed a complaint against Google over the same matter in 2018.


Ireland’s Data Protection Commission was appointed the lead authority on the complaints and expects to make a decision on the investigation into Google and its handling of location data in the next few months.


The BEUC has a number of suggestions which it believes should be implemented into Google’s practises. Primarily, this includes revising its sign up process in order to make sure that privacy is the default as well as being fully transparent about how the users data will be processed.


It also argues that data protection authorities should enforce and impose an “effective, proportionate and deterrent fine” against Google for any infringement of GDPR.


Our comments


This action taken by the BEUC follows a recent trend of steps being taken across the world against large corporation’s handling of data, particularly in the case of the Online Safety Bill in the UK and the European Parliament’s Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, the latter of which seeks to restrain the power of tech giants over the rest of the industry.


While this action has come later than many might have hoped and wished and is yet to yield results, it does seem to be a step in the right direction by the BEUC in attempting to ensure consumers are better informed about their data use and global tech giants like Google are held to account. If the action is successful and BEUC manages to get Google to comply with GDPR then this would certainly be a good result for consumers, not just in the EU but potentially worldwide as well.


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