Google Gets Sued Over Location Marketing Practices: Why Transparency Matters When Collecting User Data

google location privacy

Have you ever had that feeling of being monitored all the time? Every place you go, every step you take? Well, Google is being sued by attorneys general in different US states for using “deceptive and unfair practices” to obtain user location data.

Basically, the lawsuit accuses the world’s biggest search engine of using “dark patterns” to deliver more location data. By obscure patterns we can understand that they are a type of “trick” included in the design of the website or application that induces the users to take an action that, explicitly, they would not choose.

Check out this article for more details on the process, what Google (claims) to have done in relation to it and, finally, the importance of capturing user data with transparency.

Google’s answer

The bipartisan lawsuit — supported by Democratic and Republican attorneys general from D.C., Indiana, Texas and Washington — alleges that between 2014 and 2019, Google misled users, making them believe that turning off location history settings would stop their data from being tracked.

On the other hand, the company claims to have made, in recent years, many improvements in relation to location data, making it easier for the user to manage and, thus, increasing transparency.

In: Topics API. Out: FLoC

Additionally, Google recently announced that the FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) project will be replaced by the Topics API.

FLoC is a (somewhat controversial) proposal to replace cookies with interest-based advertising. Basically, the idea was to group users with compatible interests. But, as we said, even before it was launched, FLoC was heavily criticized by authorities linked to data protection and was left aside.

In the Topics API proposal, the idea is that, while the users move around the web, the browser “learns” about their interests. At first, the browser will keep user data in the history for 3 weeks and the number of topics is restricted to 300, but there are already plans to increase these numbers.

Websites visited by the user are categorized based on these topics, and in case a website has not been categorized before, it will be done by a machine learning algorithm, which will suggest an estimated topic. Therefore, Google will understand a user’s interests.

When accessing any website that supports the Google API, three topics that the user has been interested in over the last 3 weeks will be shared. This list of topics will be randomly picked from the top 5 topics each week.

Thinking about data shared for advertising purposes, the Topics API really allows for greater privacy. Also, an important point is that sensitive data such as gender, race and sexual orientation will not be provided, preventing any possibility of discrimination by advertisers.

In addition, Google reinforces that it offers users settings that allow much more control and transparency than the current format. In the future, each person will be able to edit their list of topics — revising, removing and even deactivating as well.

The company also provides a full page to guide users on how to manage location history data. The page offers information on how to enable, disable and even delete the history.

Why is this an important matter

At this point you might be wondering why we are covering this topic? Simple: because the way we capture and use user data is very important. And it must be transparent!

Among the data that Google collects from consumers, location information is among the most sensitive data and that, if gathered — whether over a short or long period of time — can expose a person (their identity, routine, etc.) or allow for the deduction of personal information, such as membership to political/religious groups and marriage, among many others.

This isn’t at all the first data privacy scandal which has forced companies to make decisions (and that has especially alarmed those who rely on ads to succeed in their marketing campaigns).

Last year Apple launched iPhone privacy feature, App Tracking Transparency (ATT) and required that apps request permission from users before tracking them across other apps and websites.

Not only this was a problem for the marketer totally reliant on tracking data, but also has made a real financial damage on some social platforms. According to a report, companies like Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, and Twitter lost more than U$10B in ad revenues after Apple’s privacy changes. 

And of course that, like the controversies over Google’s lawsuit, worries most marketers.

In Digital Marketing, it is impossible to think of any strategy without using data. We know that they are essential to better understand the profile of the customer or potential customer and, from that, offer more appropriate content and products or services.

In this case, transparency is even more necessary. It is necessary to request authorization and always make it clear to the user what data is being collected, in addition to offering an option to “unsubscribe”, for example.

After all, does it make sense having thousands of contacts in your base if they are not interested in what you offer? Or if for every 10 emails you send, the user opens 1?

In a privacy-first and cookieless world, collecting first-party data through great content can be a great way to keep generating leads and revenue.

To collect data safely and transparently, here are some tips:

  • Show the importance of collecting that data for the user;
  • Emphasize (and put in practice) the security of the information provided;
  • Ask permission (always!);
  • Facilitate collection (if possible, through integrations with Gmail, Facebook, etc).

And, of course, be sure to deliver the promised value at the time of data capture. As the customers realize the benefits of providing information, they will consequently trust your company more, which will make this authorization and data delivery dynamic even smoother.

Transparency and respect for privacy are not only necessary practices from a legal point of view. By being transparent and respecting the privacy of your users, you will certainly have much more valuable data and make even better decisions regarding your marketing strategy!

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