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10th Nov 2021

Supreme Court lets Google off the hook for paying 4m iPhone users £750 over data tracking

Danny Jones

Supreme Court ruling on Google's data tracking

Google was secretly collecting data from millions of people between 2011 and 2012

A Supreme Court ruling has blocked a class-action lawsuit against Google for tracking and harvesting millions of people’s data through the Apple web browser, Safari.

The judgement handed down on Wednesday (November 10) could have seen UK iPhone users receive up to £750 in compensation after Richard Lloyd – a consumer rights activist and the former director of Which? – claimed that the company knowingly collected data from over four million people’s devices.

The court decided unanimously that the claim could not succeed as Lloyd could not prove that all of the individuals he was representing in the class action suit “suffered any material damage or distress” as a result of the breach and thus could not all be represented as having suffered the same harm.

We reported on the potential compensation earlier this year; Google was essentially caught placing secret advertising tracking cookies on Apple’s web browser Safari almost a decade ago, with Lloyd beginning his legal action in 2018.

Had the case been won by Lloyd and campaigners, Google You Owe Us, it would have seen anywhere between £1-3 billion paid out in compensation for breaches of the Data Protection Act. Essentially, because it was done not only without their consent but unknowingly, the case could not move forward.

Whether using iPhone, Mac or iPad, users were assured of their privacy through the default settings – however Google found a way to override the system that blocked third-party cookies from tracking their online movements. Subsequently, they are accused of illegally collecting data from British iPhone users and more who used the browser between 2011 and 2012.

The workaround is said to have been discovered by Jonathan Mayer, a graduate researcher from Stanford University at the time. Nevertheless, Google still claims the data collection was accidental and it did not mean for the feature to bypass privacy settings.

Back in 2012, they reached a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission over the breach, paying a then-record civil penalty of $22.5m and approximately $17m to dozens of states in the US in admitting to the data tracking and collection, though the settlement accepted no liability at the time.

Richard Lloyd vs Google

Speaking after the ruling, Lloyd said he is “bitterly disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other Big Tech firms who break the law”, adding that “if there are few consequences for abusing our personal data then there is little incentive for companies like Google to protect consumers.”

Insisting that the judges overturned a clear ruling from senior experts in the Court of Appeals, he declared that “the government must now step in to make the system clearer and stronger by bringing in the right for groups of consumers to take action together under the Data Protection Act.

“The responsibility to protect our privacy, data rights and collective action is squarely back with the government.”

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