UK’s highest court blocks legal action against Google over internet tracking | UK Supreme Court

The UK’s High Court has blocked a £3 billion lawsuit against Google over allegations that it secretly tracked the internet activity of millions of iPhone users.

Legal experts said the decision meant that “the gates” remained closed to class actions over data privacy in England and Wales, even though the ruling noted the potential of digital technology to cause “collective harm” to people.

Richard Lloyd, the former director of consumer group Who?, wanted to file a US-style class action lawsuit against the search engine on behalf of about 4.4 million people in England and Wales.

He alleged that Google illegally misused the data of millions of iPhone users by tracking and comparing their internet use on their phones’ Safari browser in 2011 and 2012, even when it was confirmed that this tracking would be opted out by default.

Lloyd and the Google campaign group You Owe Us are hoping to sue the US-based company for damages equivalent to £750 per person for alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act (DPA).

The Supreme Court initially ruled that Lloyd could not file the lawsuit against Google outside the jurisdiction of England and Wales in October 2018 – because Lloyd needed permission to file in the US state of Delaware where Google was founded – but that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals in October 2019. However, a five-judge panel of the Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed an appeal by Google against that decision.

Lord Legat, when making the main ruling, said Lloyd’s intention to give affected iPhone users a flat amount, without having to prove financial loss or mental distress, was “unsustainable”.

Legat said the DPA section on which the claim was based refers to the physical harm and mental distress caused by the unlawful processing of the data — not the unlawful processing itself. Thus, a blanket lawsuit that does not detail each individual’s suffering from physical harm or mental distress was untenable.

The judge said, “What gives substance to the allegation is the claim that Google secretly tracked the Internet activity of millions of Apple iPhone users for several months and used the data obtained for commercial purposes. But upon analysis, the plaintiff seeks damages without attempting to substantiate this claim in the event of any An individual whose compensation has been claimed.

“Without evidence of some unlawful processing of an individual’s personal data beyond the minimum required to be included within the definition of the category represented, a claim on behalf of that individual has no prospect of meeting the threshold for awarding compensation.”

Google’s lawyers argued at a hearing in April that the landmark appeals court ruling could “open the door wide” to widespread lawsuits brought on behalf of millions of people against companies responsible for handling people’s data.

Emily Cox, head of disputes at law firm Stewart, said the ruling was a relief for major tech companies that deal with the data of millions of people in England and Wales on a daily basis.

“This decision ensures that the gates remain firmly closed to data privacy class claims in England and Wales, relieving big tech, but also leaving consumers without a viable path to redress for violations of their privacy rights by large companies and consequently restricted access to justice.”

“Had Google lost the appeal, this could have opened the door to class action lawsuits in the tech sector,” said Jonathan MacDonald, partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys.

Google You Owe Us and Lloyd claimed that Google bypassed privacy settings on Apple iPhones between August 2011 and February 2012 and used the data collected to segment people into advertisers’ categories.

They said the “browser-generated information” collected by Google includes racial or ethnic origin, physical and mental health, political affiliations or opinions, sexual interests and social class. Google’s lawyers said there was no indication that the so-called Safari solution had led to any information being disclosed to third parties.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other big tech companies that break the law,” Lloyd said.

A Google spokesperson said: This claim was related to events that occurred a decade ago that were covered at the time. People want to know they are safe online, which is why for years we have focused on building products and infrastructure that respect and protect people’s privacy.”

Meanwhile, an EU high court on Wednesday rejected Google’s appeal against a €2.4 billion (£2.1 billion) fine from regulators who found the tech giant abused its massive online reach by giving its shopping recommendations an illegal advantage. in search results.

The European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, sanctioned Google in 2017 for unfairly favoring its shopping service over competitors. The General Court of the European Court of Justice ruled that it “substantially rejects” Google’s appeal against this antitrust penalty and upheld the fine.