Google buried location settings so people wouldn't disable them, court docs claim

The search giant also pressured other Android manufacturers to make the settings less prominent, according to newly unsealed documents.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

Google is in the hot seat for its location settings policies.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google made location settings harder to find in its Android phone software so people wouldn't turn them off, a move aimed at preserving the data collection efforts that power the tech giant's lucrative ad business, according to court documents that were unsealed earlier this week

The decision came after Google conducted research that found a "substantial increase" in devices disabled the settings when they were presented with easily accessible options, the documents claim. The search giant saw the shift as a "problem" and pressured other Android phone makers to bury the settings, too.

The documents are part of a consumer fraud case against Google filed last year by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. The Arizona Mirror earlier reported on the unsealed documents.

"At bottom, Google's efforts were intended to deemphasize the prominence of location settings because Google's own research showed that users are more likely to disable location settings when presented with a clear option to do so," an unredacted passage from the lawsuit says. "Google tried to convince these carriers and manufacturers to conceal the location settings — or make them less prominent — through active misrepresentations and/or concealment, suppression, or omission of facts available to Google concerning user experience in order to assuage their privacy concerns."

Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the manufacturers that Google "successfully pressured" was LG, which moved the location toggle to the second page of settings, according to the lawsuit. LG didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The lawsuit was filed in response to a 2018 investigation by the Associated Press, which scrutinized Google's location data practices on phones running Android, the company's mobile operating system. The news outlet reported that Google still tracks people's whereabouts even if they turn off a setting called Location History.

If that setting is paused, the company still tracks where users go, though the app won't record the places they've been in their Google Maps timelines, the report said. Users could, however, pause location tracking by turning off another setting, called Web and Apps Activity.  

Google generates the vast majority of its revenue through its massive advertising operation, which is buttressed by personal information Google collects when people use its products. But users were "lulled into a false sense of security" because Google led users to believe they disabled settings for location data gathering, when they were still turned on, Brnovich wrote on Twitter when the lawsuit was first filed.