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Google wins £3bn legal fight over iPhone ‘data misuse’

·5-min read
IPhone (PA) (PA Archive)
IPhone (PA) (PA Archive)

A £3 billion legal claim against Google over claims it secretly tracked the internet activity of millions of iPhone users has been blocked by the UK’s highest court.

Former Which? director Richard Lloyd wanted to bring a “representative action” against the US-based tech giant on behalf of around 4.4 million people in England and Wales.

Supported by campaign group Google You Owe Us, Mr Lloyd claimed the search engine giant “illegally misused the data of millions of iPhone users” with technology in use on the iPhone Safari browser.

He launched a bid for compensation for alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act, suggesting each iPhone user in the relevant period in 2011 and 2012 could land a £750 payout.

But Supreme Court judges today brought the legal action to an end, saying the claim “has no real prospect of success”.

Lord Leggatt, delivering the decisive ruling, said the problem lay in the way the legal action had been brought “as a representative action”.

“The claimant seeks damages…for each individual member of the represented class without attempting to show that any wrongful use was made by Google of personal data relating to that individual or that the individual suffered any material damage or distress as a result of a breach of the requirements of the Act by Google”, he said.

The High Court initially ruled that Mr Lloyd could not serve the claim on Google outside the jurisdiction of England and Wales in October 2018, but that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in October 2019.

Wednesday’s ruling - unanimous among the five Supreme Court justices - overturns the Court of Appeal decision.

Google’s lawyers argued that a landmark ruling against the tech giant could “open the floodgates” to vast claims brought on behalf of millions of people against companies responsible for handling people’s data.

Antony White QC told the Supreme Court that “a number of substantial representative actions have been commenced seeking compensation for breach of data protection rights” since the Court of Appeal’s judgment.

Mr White said allowing such claims to be brought could have “profound and far-reaching implications across all civil litigation”.

He argued that, under data protection laws, “compensation is only available for ‘damage’ suffered as a consequence of the (data) breach, and not for the breach itself”.

Mr White added that “the technical matters which gave rise to the ‘Safari workaround’ were rectified many years ago”.

The barrister also said that “the true purpose” of Mr Lloyd’s proposed claim was “to pursue a high-profile public campaign for ‘accountability’ against Google, rather than to obtain redress” for any data breaches.

Google You Owe Us and Mr Lloyd claim Google bypassed privacy settings on Apple iPhone handsets between August 2011 and February 2012 and used the data gathered to divide people into categories for advertisers.

They say “browser-generated information” collected by Google included racial or ethnic origin, physical and mental health, political affiliations or opinions, sexual interests and social class.

Reacting to the decision, Mr Lloyd said they are “bitterly disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other Big Tech firms who break the law”.

“Although the Court once again recognised that our action is the only practical way that millions of British people can get access to fair redress, they’ve slammed the door shut on this case by ruling that everyone affected must go to court individually”, he added.

“If there are few consequences for abusing our personal data then there is little incentive for companies like Google to protect consumers.

“The Government must now step in to make the system clearer and stronger by bringing in the right for groups of consumers to take action together under the Data Protection Act. The responsibility to protect our privacy, data rights and collective action is squarely back with the Government.”

Google’s lawyers say there is no suggestion the so-called Safari workaround resulted in any information being disclosed to third parties.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the firm said: “This claim was related to events that took place a decade ago and that we addressed at the time. People want to know that they are safe and secure online, which is why for years we’ve focused on building products and infrastructure that respect and protect people’s privacy.”

Reacting to the judgment, Jonathan McDonald, a partner at top law firm Charles Russell Speechlys said the technology sector will be “relieved”.

“Google and countless other businesses – including many who use cookies on their websites without a full understanding of the cookie rules – will be relieved with the court’s finding that a claim founded on the data protection legislation’s provisions providing for the payment of compensation to individuals, requires a claimant to have suffered monetary loss or actual distress.

“The provisions do not require compensation to be paid where data has simply been processed or used in contravention of the law.”

He said a defeat for Google would have “kicked open the floodgates” for a slew of legal claims, adding: “Today will be a wake-up call for technology companies to ensure their data protection operations are watertight and adhering to law.”

CBI Chief Policy Director Matthew Fell welcomed the ruling, saying US-style class action lawsuits “could have put a chill on investment and a detrimental impact on firms across the economy without improving access to justice for the majority of consumers.”

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