A legal action of £ 3 billion. against Google over allegations that it secretly tracked internet activity for millions of iPhone users has been blocked by the UK Supreme Court.
Legal experts said the decision meant the “locks” remained closed to class action lawsuits over data protection in England and Wales, although the decision noted the ability of digital technology to cause “mass harm” to humans.
Richard Lloyd, a former director of the consumer group Which ?, 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 claimed that Google illegally misused data from millions of iPhone users by tracking and aggregating their Internet usage on their handset Safari browser in 2011 and 2012, even when users were assured that they would be opted out of such tracking by default.
Lloyd and campaign group Google You Owe Us were hoping to sue the US-based company for compensation amounting to £ 750 per person for alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act (DPA).
The Supreme Court initially ruled that Lloyd could not serve the claim on Google outside the jurisdiction of England and Wales in October 2018 – because Lloyd needed permission to serve it in the US state of Delaware, where Google is incorporated – but that decision was overturned by an appeals court. in October 2019. On Wednesday, however, a panel of five Supreme Court justices allowed Google’s appeal against this decision.
Lord Leggatt said Lloyd’s intention that affected iPhone users could be allocated a uniform amount, without having to prove financial loss or mental distress, was “untenable”.
Leggatt said that the part of the data protection authority on which the claim was based referred to material damage and mental illness caused by illegal processing of data – and not the illegal processing itself. An all-encompassing lawsuit that did not describe the individual suffering from material damage or mental illness was therefore untenable.
The judge said: “What gives apparent content to the claim is the claim that Google secretly tracked the internet activity of millions of Apple iPhone users for several months and used the data collected for commercial purposes. But based on an analysis, the plaintiff seeks to obtain compensation without attempting to prove that this assertion is true in the case of any person for whom compensation is claimed.
“Without proof of any unlawful processing of a person’s personal data beyond the absolutely necessary minimum to bring them within the definition of the class represented, a claim on behalf of that person has no prospect of reaching the threshold for award of compensation. “
Google’s lawyers argued at a hearing in April that the decision of the landmark appellate court could “open the floodgates” for huge claims made on behalf of millions of people against companies responsible for handling people’s data.
Emily Cox, head of litigation at Stewart’s law firm, said the decision was a relief for large technology companies that handle data from millions of people in England and Wales on a daily basis.
“This decision ensures that the locks remain closed to class action lawsuits over data protection in England and Wales, much to the relief of big tech, but it also leaves consumers without a viable path to compensate large corporations for violating their privacy rights and therefore restricts access to. Justice.”
Jonathan McDonald, a partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, said: “Had Google lost the appeal, this could have opened the floodgates for mass cases in the technology sector.”
Google You Owe Us and Lloyd claimed that Google circumvented privacy settings on Apple iPhones between August 2011 and February 2012 and used the data collected to divide people into categories for advertisers.
They said that “browser-generated information” collected by Google included race or ethnic origin, physical and mental health, political affiliation or opinions, sexual interests and social class. Google’s lawyers said there was no indication that the so-called Safari solution had resulted in any information being passed on to third parties.
Lloyd said: “We are bitterly disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other major technology companies breaking the law.”
A Google spokesman said: “This claim was related to events that took place a decade ago and that we were dealing with at the time. People want to know that they are safe online, and that’s why we’re focused for years on building products and infrastructure that respects and protects people’s privacy. “
Meanwhile, an EU Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected Google’s appeal of a € 2.4 billion fine. EUR (2.1 billion) from regulators who found out that the technology giant had abused its massive reach on the web by giving its own procurement recommendations an illegal advantage in its search results.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, punished Google in 2017 for unfairly favoring its own procurement service over competitors. The General Court of the European Court of Justice ruled that it “largely rejects” Google’s appeal of this antitrust penalty and upheld the fine.