The UK Supreme Court has blocked a lawsuit claiming that Google breached its users’ privacy between 2011 and 2012.
If the search engine giant had lost, it could have faced up to £3 billion in damages.
The action was filed by Google You Owe Us back in 2018 and led by former director of consumer watchdog Which?, Richard Lloyd. It marked the first case to include compensation claims for misuse of data in a class action suit.
At the heart of the case was the claim that Google was breaching the privacy of 5 million people in the UK who use Apple iPhones. It targeted the so-called Safari Workaround, which allowed Google to bypass the iPhone’s privacy settings and collect people’s information.
Among the data Google allegedly collects are location, race, political beliefs, and spending habits. Its discovery led to Google paying a $17 million settlement and a $22.5 million fine to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The UK High Court blocked the original proceedings in 2018, but this decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals.
“There is no doubt that the claimant is entitled to advance a claim against Google on this basis in his own right which has a real prospect of success,” the court’s judgement reads. “The issue is whether he can also do so on behalf of all other iPhone users who fall within the represented class.”
According to the court’s decision, the claimants had to demonstrate that damage or loss had been suffered to claim compensation. This meant that each claimant had to show this on an individual basis.
As such, simply suffering loss of control of personal data was not sufficient.
“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,” the judgement notes.
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The Google case was a testbed to see whether a similar type of suit could be brought against tech companies tracking data. If the claimants had won the case, it would have opened up Google, as well as other companies, to even more suits.
Similar lawsuits were being considered against Facebook and TikTok.
“We 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. They have overturned a very clear ruling by senior, expert judges in the Court of Appeal,” Lloyd said.
“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: “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.”