Google loses High Court privacy bid

Witney Gazette: The Google logo as seen by millions of users The Google logo as seen by millions of users

Google has lost its High Court bid to block a breach of privacy legal action launched against it in the UK by a group of British internet users.

The internet giant applied for a declaration that the court has no jurisdiction to try their claims, which relate to the Apple Safari internet browser.

The group, known as Safari Users Against Google's Secret Tracking, accuse Google of bypassing security settings in order to track their online browsing and to target them with personalised advertisements.

Today Mr Justice Tugendhat, sitting at London's High Court, ruled that the UK courts were the "appropriate jurisdiction" to try their claims.

A group spokesman said: "The Google argument that any trial should take place in California has not been accepted by the judge."

The Safari Users group includes editor and publisher Judith Vidal-Hall, and Robert Hann and Marc Bradshaw, who are both IT security company directors.

They say Google's "clandestine" tracking and collation of internet usage between summer 2011 and spring 2012 has led to distress and embarrassment among UK users.

They argued in court that Google's bid to block a trial was "misconceived" and the company should "answer to British justice".

Allegations against Google include misuse of private information, breach of confidence and of the 1998 Data Protection Act.

In particular, it is alleged Google acted directly contrary to a 2009 amendment to an EU directive which required informed consent before a cookie could be placed on an internet user's device for tracking and collating purposes related to behavioural advertising.

The action group says the information was collected and sold to advertisers who used its DoubleClick advertising service.

Google argued that the UK courts were not the proper place to bring a claim, and dissatisfied Safari users should have launched their claims in the United States, where Google is based.

Disagreeing, the judge ruled: "I am satisfied that there is a serious issue to be tried in each of the claimant's claims for misuse of private information.

"The claimants have clearly established that this jurisdiction is the appropriate one in which to try each of the above claims."

The Safari Users group hailed the judge's ruling as "a landmark decision".

Dan Tench, the Olswang legal firm partner leading the case for the claimants, welcomed today's ruling, saying: "It is only right that English claimants should have a case heard in England, and not have to travel to California because it suits Google better.

"Google has unlimited resources to deal with legal matters. Ordinary Britons do not.

"This was a flagrant, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to evade justice. The court saw through it. We now look forward to the discovery process where we expect to find out what really happened at Google to cause it to breach privacy laws."

Sarari Users say they plan to step up their actions against Google and will launch a new broader campaigning group to draw attention to the company's behaviour.

They say: "The Google Governance Campaign (www.googlegovernance.com) aims to highlight Google's approach to the collection and use of private data, and its conduct in the United Kingdom including its track record on tax and links with government."

Group member Ms Vidal-Hall said she was delighted that Google would now have to answer questions in open court in England.

She said: "We want to know how Google came to ignore user preferences to track us online.

"How did they get around Apple's program settings - they have said it was accidental, but how do you accidentally interfere with someone else's program?

"We want to know how long they have done this for, what they've done with our private data, how much they have made from this, and why they keep flouting privacy laws.

"This case is about protecting the rights of all internet users who use a company that is virtually a monopoly but seems intent on ignoring their right to privacy."

Campaigner Mr Bradshaw said that Google had brought the action being taken against it on itself.

He said: "When a market leader misbehaves, repeatedly, and seems to learn nothing from its errors, someone needs to stand up and persuade it to change.

"Our goal, as a campaigning group, will be to highlight every bad decision Google makes and to embarrass it into behaving more responsibly.

"If Google starts to respect privacy again and participates in this country in a responsible way, our campaign will be unnecessary.

"Until then, our fight continues - in the English courts, in the media, in Parliament and online. Our message to Google is clear: stop abusing your users."

Google was refused permission to appeal but intends to ask the Court of Appeal itself to hear its case.

A Google spokeswoman said: "A case almost identical to this one was dismissed in its entirety three months ago in the US.

"We still don't think that this case meets the standards required in the UK for it to go to trial, and we'll be appealing today's ruling."

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "It's absolutely right people are able to access justice in Britain when the issue concerns a company that has a significant presence here and offers services to millions of British people.

"This is an important case for privacy regulation, as it involved users making a specific choice about sharing data and being tracked that was not respected by Google.

"It is an important principle that people are able to control who collects their information and how it is used and this case has the potential to enhance consumer protection and strengthen privacy in a number of areas. It is critical that companies respect the choices we make as consumers and this case could be a significant deterrent in future."

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