High court rules that group of more than 100 alleging invasion of privacy through Safari 'hack' can have case heard in UK
The case will now go ahead in the UK, where a group of more than 100 people are suing Google, alleging that it misused private information, breached confidence and breached the 1998 Data Protection Act.
Google said it will appeal against the decision, on the basis that the case does not meet the standards required to be heard by the court.
The search company had applied for a declaration that the case doesn't meet the criteria to be heard by the court, which relate to a "hack" that it used on Apple's Safari browser to install advertising cookies.
But Mr Justice Tugendhat, sitting at London's high court, ruled that the UK courts were the "appropriate jurisdiction" to try their claims. "I am satisfied that there is a serious issue to be tried in each of the claimant's claims for misuse of private information," he said in the ruling.
The group, which calls itself Safari Users Against Google's Secret Tracking, accuses Google of invading their privacy after bypassing security settings in order to track their online browsing and to target them with personalised advertisements.
Judith Vidal-Hall, one of the claimants, who had campaigned under the name Safari Users Against Google’s Secret Tracking, said she was "delighted" that Google will have to answer questions in open court.
“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.”
In the judgment, Tugendhat rebuffed Google's argument that the information was not private because it was anonymous. "It would not collect and collate information unless doing so enabled it to produce something of value," he said.
In December the group called Google "arrogant and immoral" for arguing that internet users in the UK should bring any lawsuit over the tracking in California, where it is based, rather than the UK, where they lived and claimed that the infringement occurred.
In the US, Google has already paid a $22.5m (£14.4m fine to the US Federal Trade Commission and a further $17m to a number of US states for the breach, which meant that Safari users' web activity could be tracked even where the browser settings said they should not be.
Google said in a statement: "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.”
The US class action case, brought in Delaware, was struck down on the basis that the plaintiff there could not prove harm, and had not shown a loss of money or property. However the US does not have an equivalent of the UK's Data Protection Act or other privacy legislation which is being asserted in the UK case.
The "hack" was discovered by Jonathan Mayer, a university researcher, late in 2011. Google admitted that it had carried it out in February 2012. The "hack" circumvented protections built into Safari on the iPhone and iPad and Mac desktop computers and meant that people could see messages indicating whether their associates in Google "Circles" on its Google+ social network had clicked on ads – but it also let Google and other advertisers see which websites people landed on.
By January 2013, more than 70 Britons had contacted lawyers to seek redress. But in August they complained that it was trying to deny that UK laws were applicable to their use. Its lawyers also described their claims as "not serious", suggesting that peoples' browsing habits were not protected as "personal information" even where they related to sexuality or personal health.
A group spokesman said: "The Google argument that any trial should take place in California has not been accepted by the judge."
Tugendhat said: "The claimants have clearly established that this jurisdiction is the appropriate one in which to try each of the above claims."
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image: © Carlos Luna