Congressman, scholars ask court to unseal documents in Google fraud suit

Photo by Robert Scoble | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs and scholars from across the country have filed letters with the Maricopa County Superior Court asking for the court to unseal documents related to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich claiming that Google defrauded Arizonans

In a heavily redacted court filing in May, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich claimed that Google has violated Arizona’s Consumer Fraud Act in the way it gathers location data, and he is asking the tech giant to pay millions of dollars in fines and restitution.

“The tactics Google deploys to surveil its users’ locations – including users in Arizona – include willfully deceptive and unfair acts and practices within the meaning of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act,” the 48-page complaint says.  

The Attorney General’s Office began investigating Google after an Associated Press article in 2018

“The public has a strong interest in transparency and learning the full extent to which Google and other tech companies may be spying and surreptitiously collecting information from Arizonans, including constituents I represent,” Biggs, a Gilbert Republican, said in his letter to the court. “Any information that is not considered a trade secret or proprietary to Google should be made available for the public.” 

Google has already asked the court to block a move by Brnovich’s office to make public documents filed under seal. 

The redactions in the lawsuit are testimony from Google employees, as well as internal documents obtained by the AG’s nearly two-year investigation, spokesman Ryan Anderson previously told Arizona Mirror. 

Google contended that the information was confidential and so it was redacted in the filing, though Anderson said the AG’s office plans to make as much of it public as possible. 

A letter to the judge overseeing the case signed by 27 scholars and legal advocates also urged the release of the documents that accompanied the AG’s initial complaint. 

“The issue of user location tracking by Google and other tech companies is of urgent public importance, and there is presently a robust public debate on this topic,” the letter says. “In consequence, a delay will impede the role of research and advocacy in ensuring informed public discourse.” 

The letter includes scholars from Harvard, MIT, Cornell Tech and Boston University

Google contends in its court filings that the investigation by the AG’s office was “improperly publicized” and was supposed to be “confidential by statute.” Google also stated that the investigation was prompted not by the AP story, but by one of Google’s competitors, Oracle. 

Google also contends that it did not run afoul of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act, as collecting geolocation is information that is “clearly disclosed” and the services they offered to consumers were offered for free. 

The AG disagrees, stating in a court filing that “Google wants to seal nearly all allegations concerning ads personalization, including the fact that Google still serves location-based ads when users opt out.” 

The AG claims that the portions that are redacted could help justify the consumer fraud claims they are trying to prove. 

In a new filing responding to Google’s motion on Friday, the AG said that sealing the documents would “unconstitutionally impair the right of public access that is guaranteed by both the First Amendment and the Arizona Constitution.”

“The AG is statutorily permitted to make these materials public, and nothing precludes the State from doing so,” the filing says. “Google has already delayed this process for over two months, and the State has not agreed to keep this information private unless Google files a motion to seal by August 10.”

After the initial filing in May, Google and representatives from the AG’s office engaged in six phone calls that lasted “hours” in which the sealed documents were discussed. The AG said that Google never explained which information needed to be confidential.

“Google never took up this offer and never pointed to anything that is particularly sensitive, much less with any substantiation,” the filing says.

There are 270 redacted exhibits which have been filed with the case under seal. The Mirror has made a public records request for the exhibits, which Anderson said include internal emails and interviews with Google employees. 

Brnovich is demanding a jury trial and a status conference is set for the case early next month.

***UPDATED: This story was updated to include additional information from the AG’s July 24 filing.