Man sitting at the MacBook retina with site Google on the screen

Supreme Court blocks £3bn class action against Google

Image credit: Prykhodov/Dreamstime

A £3bn legal action against Google over allegations it unlawfully tracked millions of iPhone users’ personal information has been blocked by the UK’s highest court.

Former Which? magazine executive director Richard Lloyd, supported by the campaign group Google You Owe Us, wanted to bring a ‘representative action’ against the US-based tech firm on behalf of around 4.4 million people in England and Wales.

Lloyd alleged that Google illegally obtained over five million Apple iPhone users’ personal data between 2011 and 2012 by bypassing default privacy settings on the Safari browser to track internet browsing histories, known as the ‘Safari workaround’.

Lloyd and Google You Owe Us hoped to win between £1bn and £3bn in compensation for alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act.

The High Court initially ruled that 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.

Google challenged the Court of Appeal’s judgment at a hearing this April and a panel of five Supreme Court justices gave their verdict today (10 November), blocking the case from going ahead.

Giving the lead ruling, Lord Leggatt said that Mr Lloyd’s intention that affected iPhone users could be awarded a uniform sum, without having to prove financial loss or mental distress, was “unsustainable”.

The judge said: “What gives the appearance of substance to the claim is the allegation 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 on analysis, the claimant is seeking to recover damages without attempting to prove that this allegation is true with any individual for whom damages are claimed.

“Without proof of some unlawful processing of an individual’s personal data beyond the bare minimum required to bring them within the definition of the represented class, a claim on behalf of that individual has no prospect of meeting the threshold for an award of damages.”

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

Lloyd and Google You Owe Us also claim that Google intended to use the data gathered to divide people into categories for advertisers. They said “browser-generated information” collected by Google included racial or ethnic origin, physical and mental health, political affiliations or opinions, sexual interests, and social class.

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

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles