EU groups crack down on Google’s ‘sign-in surveillance’

Ten consumer groups, coordinated by the European Consumers’ Organization (BEUC), have accused Google of using misleading design and choices in the account sign-up process, giving the company access to a huge amount of personal data.

They allege that Google is interfering with users’ ability to protect their privacy, which constitutes an unfair business practice in light of the EU GDPR requirement that users should have access to privacy by default and design.

BEUC claims that Google makes it easy for users to share their information during the sign-up process with just the click of a button.

Opting out is a little more complicated, however.

In total, it takes five clicks and ten steps to deactivate the trackers that Google tries to enable on a new account. These trackers cover site and app activity, YouTube history, and individualized ads.

“The language used by Google at every step of the registration process is unclear, incomplete and misleading,” the group said.

‘Google also frames the more privacy-friendly options as missing out on benefits. This prevents the consumer from making an informed decision when making a choice and leads to unfair, opaque and unlawful processing of his personal data.’

The group also says that Google is not transparent about how it uses the personal data it collects.

As a result, “tens of millions of Europeans were put on the trail of surveillance when they signed up for a Google account.”

Dutch, Danish and Swedish consumer organizations have written to their privacy authorities to inform them of Google’s activities; and Slovenian, Greek, Czech and French consumer organizations have lodged complaints with their respective data protection authorities. The German consumer organization has sent a letter to Google, which could lead to a civil lawsuit.

European privacy laws vary from country to country and certain agencies are required to investigate any formal complaint they receive.

Google, for its part, states that users have a number of options to choose from when they create a Google account.

“These options are clearly labeled and designed to be easy to understand. We based them on extensive research efforts and guidance from DPAs (Data Protection Authorities) and feedback from testers.” a spokesperson told the BBC

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure these choices are clear and simple.”

In January, the French privacy watchdog fined Google and Facebook a combined €210 million for a related violation. The regulator said the companies were making it too difficult for users to decline web cookies.

In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Thursday, a coalition of U.S. technology and consumer organizations outlined identical concerns about Google’s slurred language and the time-consuming steps required to rule out data sharing.

The FTC said last year it would step up its investigation into how companies use deceptive strategies to lure customers to their services before making it difficult for them to withdraw from the service.

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