Google has escaped the risk of a lawsuit after violating the privacy of around 5.4 million iPhone users in the UK. The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled that it cannot allow a US-style Class Action suit to be lobbed at the search giant after it deliberately created a workaround to track Safari users. The judgment, read by Lord Leggatt, was focused on procedural matters, like the intersection between Google, based in the US, and the UK’s data protection laws. More importantly, however, was the issue of “damage,” and the fact that the claimants — led by consumer rights champion Richard Lloyd — had not established that any material harm had been caused by Google’s workaround.
The story begins in 2017 with Lloyd, and many others, formed a group called “Google You Owe Us” to attempt to sue the company. It alleged that Google had illegally collected data on iPhone users between June 2011 and February 2012 in violation of UK law. The matter hinged on the fact that Google had deliberately created a workaround to get access to data it was not otherwise entitled to. Lloyd and crew lost at the High Court, but this initial decision was overturned by the UK’s Court of Appeal, saying that it was quite proper for Google to face a courtroom after the intentional misuse of personal data without consent.
US-style Class Action lawsuits are not common, or even really a thing in UK law, although it is possible for a large group of litigants to bring a joint action. Lloyd and his cohort were trying to establish that Google’s tracking was, in and of itself, harmful, and by extension a standard level of compensation could be calculated. This was the fact that the Supreme Court rejected most clearly — saying that a set figure (reportedly pegged around £750 (around $1,000) per affected user) was not fair redress.
David Barker of Pinsent Masons — the firm Google hired to fight this case — wrote that the decision upholds the notion that compensation can only be asked for where real harm has been caused. And that, put simply, Google’s aggregation of personal data was insufficient to cause any real-world harm or mental distress. Richard Lloyd, who brought the action, told Sky News that he was “bitterly disappointed” that the court had “failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other Big Tech firms who break the law.” And that this ruling, in effect, is the writing of a blank check for large technology companies to keep misusing user data without fear of censure. He added that it is time for government leaders to step in and craft laws to better clamp down on the misuse of personal data.