Google faces landmark privacy claim

Posted: 16th January 2014

GoogleGoogle Inc. has failed to block landmark High Court proceedings brought by three disgruntled internet users who say that they were caused ‘acute distress and anxiety’ due to the tracking and collation of their private information, without their knowledge or consent, for the purposes of targeted advertising.

In a ruling of worldwide significance, the Court decided for the first time that the misuse of private information is capable of being a tort; that the three claimants had raises serious issues to be tried under human rights and data protection legislation and that it was appropriate to hear the case in England.

The issues raised by the case are of enormous importance to Google, which generates a large proportion of what the Court described as its ‘spectacular revenues’ from the collection and aggregation of information relating to the interests and preferences of Internet users for marketing purposes.

The claimants are seeking damages, aggravated damages and other relief on the basis that Google misused private information gathered through their use of the Apple Safari browser. As well as denying any wrongdoing, Google, which is registered in Delaware and has its main place of business in California, disputed the Court’s jurisdiction to hear the case.

However, the Court found that the criteria for service of the proceedings outside the jurisdiction had been met and that the High Court of England and Wales was the ‘appropriate forum’ for the case to be heard. Although the claimants were not entitled to injunctive relief, they had an arguable case that they had suffered non-pecuniary damage through the misuse of their private information.

The claimants’ arguments that Google’s activities breached duties imposed by the Data Protection Act 1998 also gave rise to a serious issue to be tried and the Court rejected Google’s plea that, given the relatively low value of the claims when measured against the potentially huge legal costs of the case, ‘the game was not worth the candle’.

Google’s submission that browser-generated information is anonymous - and, thus, not ‘private’ - was described as ‘surprising’ by the Court, which noted that the issue was whether the claimants were ‘identifiable’ from the information gathered. The Court’s decision opened the way for the case to proceed to trial in London.