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UK landmark ruling has dealt a double blow to Google while boosting consumer privacy rights

google safari logoBy Simon Davies

The Court of Appeal in London this morning handed down a decision that is set to trigger a huge win for European consumers.

The court had been considering a case in which a group of UK online consumers had sued Google over its wilful manipulation of the Safari browser, so that privacy settings were covertly reversed for the benefit of the advertising giant. The case was foreshadowed by an expert roundtable sponsored by the Privacy Surgeon in 2012.

In a case reminiscent of “Oscar Wilde v. The Marquis of Queensberry” Google decided to go on the attack, claiming not only that the UK courts have no jurisdiction and that European consumers are required to conduct any legal actions through the US court system, but also that the claims had no validity because there was no actual financial harm to the complainants.

This opens the floodgates for the growing number of aggrieved Google customers to pursue action in the UK courts (this includes the potential for consumes to act over Google’s Street View WiFi grab).

Neither line of argument played well with the superior court, which came down heavily in favour of the right of consumers to sue multinational companies in the territory where the damage occurs. This opens the floodgates for the growing number of aggrieved Google customers to pursue action in the UK courts (this includes the potential for consumes to act over Google’s Street View WiFi grab).

Of equal importance is the court’s ruling that financial loss is not relevant in such cases. In its judgement, the Court of Appeal said:

“On the face of it, these claims raise serious issues which merit a trial. They concern what is alleged to have been the secret and blanket tracking and collation of information, often of an extremely private nature… about and associated with the claimants’ internet use, and the subsequent use of that information for about nine months. The case relates to the anxiety and distress this intrusion upon autonomy has caused.”

Significantly, the ruling specifically allows for future actions under the Data Protection Act for recovery of non-material damages (for example, emotional distress).

In the past, the default legal position has been that actions largely depended on material loss. In effect, today’s ruling confirms that the misuse of private information is a Tort, meaning that claimants have a right to redress. The ruling also reinterprets (in an upward direction) the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, destabilising the UK’s transposition of those rights for emotional damage claims, rather than merely fiscal claims.

There are several other important trickle-down effects from this ruling. The most obvious of these is that all multinationals are now exposed to legal action outside their home turf. The second is that all overseas based organisaions – including agencies such as the NSA and other US government agencies – are now exposed to UK actions. Finally, the ruling opens the path for actions that would create a ruling at European level to set the same conditions for all EU countries.

Google said the decision was a “disappointment”. For consumers, it appears to be anything but that.