The latest on the Google privacy case

Google was in the Court of Appeal last week, trying to reverse the decision of a High Court judge in January 2014 in which he held that the company could be sued in England rather than the US. Google is arguing that the High Court judge got it wrong and that the case should not be heard in England.

The claim was brought in 2013 by a group known as Safari Users Against Google’s Secret Tracking, which includes a former editor of Index on Censorship magazine, and two IT security company directors. The case is being fought on behalf of over 100 people in Britain. If the claimants are successful, Google could be exposed to litigation from anyone who used Apple devices during the relevant period – potentially millions of people. The case is highly significant because of growing concern about online privacy and how personal data is protected when the internet is accessed.

The claimants say that Google secretly tracked the habits of users of the Safari web browser by putting tracking “cookies” on their laptops. The company is accused of bypassing security settings on the Safari browser in order to track browsing activity and to target users with personalised advertisements.  The claimants say Google tracked the websites the claimants visited, exposing their interests, hobbies, shopping habits, and religious and political beliefs. The claimants argue that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to that information. The clandestine tracking and collation of internet usage, between summer 2011 and spring 2012, has caused distress and embarrassment, according to the group.

Google unsuccessfully argued earlier this year that the High Court did not have jurisdiction to try the claims and that the case should be heard, if at all, in the US. That issue appeared to be settled in January 2014, when a High Court judge held that England was the correct jurisdiction for the claim to be heard.

Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled in January: “I am satisfied that there is a serious issue to be tried in each of the claimant’s claims for misuse of private information.” He added: “The claimants have clearly established that this jurisdiction is the appropriate one in which to try each of the… claims.”

Google is now trying to have the decision overturned.

Unusually, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has intervened in the case. The Information Commission- the UK privacy watchdog-   regulates internet companies and the use of private data. Christopher Graham made written submissions to the Court of Appeal, in which he said that there is a “serious issue to be tried” as to whether the information gathered by Google counts as “personal data” under the Data Protection Act 1988, and also as to whether damages (under section 13 of the Data Protection Act) includes non-monetary loss.

The hearing was adjourned until the new year.