updated 03:10 pm EST, Thu January 16, 2014
Court says anonymized data can still be used to identify people
Privacy activists have won the right to sue Google in England over fooling Safari into accepting cookies, according to reports. Some time ago, Apple updated Safari to allow people to block cookie-based tracking. Google developed a workaround, but was discovered, and punished with multiple fines by the US government. An American class action lawsuit was tossed out of court in October because the judge ruled no one could prove they'd been harmed.
The activists, part of the Google Governance Campaign, launched a similar suit in the UK. Google argued that an English court can't try the claims, because of their jurisdiction and nature, and asked the court to revoke permission that would enable a lawsuit in Google's American homeland. Today, though, the High Court in London denied Google's request in relation to one of the activists' two claims. The plaintiffs gained the right to pursue a tort claim in the UK, based on the charge that Google illegally used private data. The activists will have to file a complaint in the US, however, if they want to get an injunction preventing Google from spoofing web browsers in the future.
The judge in the case, Tugendhat, discounted Google's assertion that the data in question wasn't private since it was anonymized. He pointed out that anonymized data could still be used to identify someone, and that there was no point in collecting the data if it didn't generate some value for Google. He also observed that the claimants are just individuals in the UK, and couldn't possibly afford to sue Google in the US.
"The issues of English law raised by Google Inc. are complicated ones, and in a developing area," Tugendhat added. "If an American court had to resolve these issues no doubt it could do so, aided by expert evidence on English law. But that would be costly for all parties, and it would be better for all parties that the issues of English law be resolved by an English court, with the usual right of appeal, which would not be available if the issues were resolved by an American court deciding English law as a question of fact."
Activist Judith Vidal-Hall has issued a statement in response to today's ruling. "We want to know how Google came to ignore user preferences to track us online; how did they get around Apple's program settings -- they have said it was accidental, but how do you accidentally interfere with someone else's program? We want to know how long they have done this for, what they've done with our private data, how much they have made from this, and why they keep flouting privacy laws? This case is about protecting the rights of all internet users who use a company that is virtually a monopoly but seems intent on ignoring their right to privacy."
The GGC has collectively promised to accelerate a campaign targeting Google over its tax dodging schemes and connections with government. Google says it will appeal the High Court's decision.