The UK Supreme Court unanimously rejected Wednesday a legal action against Google, which alleged that the tech giant had secretly tracked millions of iPhone users and used their data for commercial purposes without consent.
The class action-style case began in 2017 when consumer rights activist Richard Lloyd brought an action seeking damages on behalf of all the Apple iPhones owners residing in England and Wales. Lloyd alleged that Google deployed a “Safari workaround” to bypass default privacy settings in Apple’s browser to track users’ internet browsing history in the months between 2011 and 2012 and used this for commercial benefits.
Lloyd’s lawsuit sought damages for privacy violations for the estimated 4 million UK iPhone users he claimed to represent, which, if awarded, would have resulted in damages to the tune of £3 billion.
The complaint attempted to prove that, notwithstanding the lack of a generic class action framework under UK law, a representative action may be launched in the UK demanding compensation for infringement of data protection requirements.
In 2018, the high court ruled in favor of Google and dismissed the case from proceeding. However, the following year, the Court of Appeal reversed the high court’s decision. The case was subsequently appealed before the UK’s top court, reaffirming the high court’s decision to block the representative action. In the ruling, Judge George Leggatt said:
In order to recover compensation under the [Data Protection Act 1998] for any given individual, it would be necessary to show both that Google made some unlawful use of personal data relating to that individual and that the individual suffered some damage as a result.
In rejecting the claim for damages, the judgment also noted that:
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.
However, the court also stated there is scope for claiming damages in a representative action if the damages could be calculated.
In a separate ruling, Google also lost an appeal to overturn an additional $2.8 billion fine imposed by the EU Commission in 2017 for abusing market dominance and favoring its own price-comparison shopping service over competing shopping services. The EU’s General Court in Luxembourg, which passed the judgment, dismissed most of Google’s claims and upheld the financial penalty.