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Google (GOOGL) wins UK Supreme Court appeal in privacy case

11:22, 10 November 2021

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Outside Google’s UK office in London
Google has won an appeal in the UK’s Supreme Court in a case that could have seen it pay billions in compensation – Photo: Shutterstock

The UK’s highest court has unanimously sided with Google in a case that could have seen the US tech giant pay out billions to British iPhone users. 

The case was brought by Richard Lloyd, who sought compensation for damages under the UK’s Data Protection Act after it was revealed that Google tracked the internet activity of around four million Apple iPhone users in England and Wales in late 2011 and early 2012.

The case argued that Google then used the data collected for commercial purposes without consent.  

Damages detail required

In a ruling published Wednesday, Supreme Court judges argued that under the 1998 Act, which was replaced in 2018, a list of damages would need to include material damage – such as a financial loss or mental distress caused by the unlawful processing of data – not purely that their data was unlawfully processed. 

They also added that in order to recover compensation, an individual claimant would need to prove which data breaches occurred in their case and the specific damages they suffered. 

Legal landmark  

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

The case attracted widespread attention due to the potential for Google to be forced to pay up to £750 in compensation to each affected user. It also held the potential for more cases to be brought against companies found to have breached consumer law. 

James Ward, managing partner of law firm Ward PLLC, told Capital.com: “Had a ruling against Google stood, it would have likely signalled the start of a swathe of cases being brought against tech giants for misrepresentations tied to data usage and privacy.”

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Split reaction 

Matthew Fell, chief policy director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – a trade group comprising 150 trade associations and individuals, amounting to around 190,000 businesses according to a fact sheet on its website – commented: “The CBI welcomes this decision. 

“Data is at the heart of modern business operations in sectors from logistics to financial services, and firms know how they treat customers’ data has a real impact on trust in technology. 

“Introducing a US-style class action could have put a chill on investment and a detrimental impact on firms across the economy without improving access to justice for the majority of consumers.” 

However, British digital campaign organisation the Open Rights Group said the decision had “effectively opened the floodgates for the online tracking industry to compromise with impunity the security of million of devices whose privacy features are restricting the ability to track users’ online without their consent”.

EC court loss 

The ruling came on the same day that Google lost an appeal over a €2.42bn ($2.79bn, £2bn) antitrust fine imposed by the European Commission (EC). 

The European General Court upheld the fine over a case that found Google used its search market dominance to direct users to its price-comparison shopping service.    

The Commission argued that Google crushed rival services by demoting them in search results.

Read more: South Korea curbs Apple, Google billing dominance

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