A consumer campaign group has launched an unprecedented legal action against Google, claiming the tech heavyweight unlawfully collected personal data and should pay compensation to millions of iPhone users.
The 'Google You Owe Us' group alleges that between June 2011 and February 2012, Google unlawfully obtained personal information by bypassing the default privacy settings on the iPhone.
About 5.4 million people in England and Wales who had any iPhone in this period may be eligible for £100s in compensation as a result, the group argues – though as with all legal challenges, there's no guarantee it'll succeed, and this is a relatively untested legal area.
The legal challenge from Google You Owe Us is what's known as a 'representative action' – essentially, a claim brought by an individual on behalf of a group of people. It's being led by Richard Lloyd, former executive director of Which?.
Because it's a representative action, a panel of four – MSE founder Martin Lewis, former High Court judge Christopher Clarke, Ofgem non-executive director Christine Farnish and former Government adviser Dominic McGonigal – have been brought in as a sounding board, to ensure people who might have been affected are taken into consideration.
The campaign group today served an 'application notice' on Google, warning it intends to seek a court order – and the group expects its case to be heard next year.
Google says it plans to contest the claim. A spokesperson said: "This is not new – we have defended similar cases before."
Martin: 'Getting clarity on the law is just as important as redress'
Commenting on the legal challenge, Martin Lewis said: "While Richard Lloyd is the one taking this pioneering case, he is of course just one of millions of people with an interest in it. I was asked if I'd be one of four people who'd act as an official sounding board, so that if decisions need making, we can provide a wider range of opinions on what actions should be taken that will be fair to all those impacted.
"For me, just as important in this case as individuals' redress is getting clarity on the law and redress available if and when companies make big data breaches – which should act as a strong deterrent."
Why has this claim been made?
The campaign group alleges that between June 2011 and February 2012, Google's algorithms allowed it to trick people's iPhones into releasing personal data from the phone's default internet browser, Safari.
Google's business model involves using personal data to help sell targeted advertisements. But Google You Owe Us alleges that in this case, the company's action breached data protection laws.
'I believe what Google did was quite simply against the law'
Richard Lloyd, who is leading Google You Owe Us and is the 'representative claimant' in the case, said: "I believe that what Google did was quite simply against the law. Their actions have affected millions, and we'll be asking the courts to remedy this major breach of trust.
"Through this action, we will send a strong message to Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley that we're not afraid to fight back if our laws are broken.
"In all my years speaking up for consumers, I've rarely seen such a massive abuse of trust where so many people have no way to seek redress on their own. That's why I've taken on one of the biggest fights of my life in representing this legal action, which is the first of its kind in the UK against a major tech company for misusing our valuable personal data."
Your questions answered
Since we published this story we've had a huge response from readers. Here are some of your questions answered – if you've more, please leave them in the comments or email email@example.com.
I think I might have been affected – what should I do now? At the moment, you don't actually need to do anything. The claim is being brought on behalf of all those allegedly affected, so you don't need to contact any lawyers or pay any fees.
Who exactly might be eligible for compensation will be determined at a later stage, and directions on how to claim, if the case is successful, will be included on Google You Owe Us's website, Facebook page and Twitter page.
If you DON'T want to be part of the claim, you must notify the group at YouOweUs.co.uk. Further information on the claim and process can also be found on that website.
I had an iPad during this period – does this action affect me? No – this representative action does NOT include those who had iPads during this period.
Google You Owe Us says the alleged process that it believes Google used to obtain the personal information could have affected iPad users, but this representative action is only on behalf of iPhone users.
I'm from Scotland or Northern Ireland – am I part of this action? The claim is being brought in the courts of England and Wales and Google You Owe Us has therefore limited its action to those who are within the courts' jurisdiction. Other parts of the UK operate under different jurisdictions.
If I'm part of the claim and it's successful, how much could I receive? Putting an exact figure on any potential payout isn't possible at this stage. But Google You Owe Us estimates each consumer might be due up to several hundred pounds. The final figure would be decided by the courts.
Who exactly is represented in this case? If you can answer 'yes' to all of the following questions, you are in the 'claimant class' – the people being represented by Richard Lloyd in the case.
a) Were you at any time between 1 June 2011 and 15 February 2012 present in England and Wales and while present:
i) Did you have an Apple ID?
ii) Did you own or were you in lawful possession of an iPhone?
iii) Did you use the Safari browser to access the internet?
iv) Did you keep the default security settings in the Safari browser?
v) Did you not opt out of 'tracking and collation' via Google's 'Ads Preference Manager'?
b) Were you resident in England and Wales on 31 May 2017?
How do I prove I had an iPhone during this period? (David, via Facebook) At this stage, it's not clear what evidence you would need.
At the moment, there's no need to prove you had an iPhone – the claim is being made on behalf of those who did. If the claim is successful, the court will determine what proof consumers need to provide to qualify for compensation and this information will be posted on YouOweUs.co.uk
Which iPhone was I likely to have had in 2011 and 2012? (Kim, via Twitter) This claim applies to any model of iPhone. But the most recent releases around that time were the iPhone 4, which was released on 24 June 2010, and the iPhone 4s, launched on 14 October 2011.
I lived in England in 2011 and 2012 but now live in Scotland – am I part of the claim? (Maggie, via the comments below) To be part of the claim you need to have lived in England or Wales at any point between 1 June 2011 and 15 February 2012, and you need to have been a resident in England or Wales on 31 May 2017.
Can I expect a lot of unsolicited calls about this? Google You Owe Us will NOT be making unsolicited phone calls about this case, so if you receive any, they are not from the group.
Arguably, as it's a representative action and just one case, this should mean there isn't a need for claims companies to get involved on a general level.
Isn't this 'compensation culture'? (Steve, via Facebook) Money and compensation are only part of this claim – it also aims to hold Google to account for its actions.
Google You Owe Us says: "We are taking Google to court because we believe that Google's actions were unlawful and we want to hold Google to account. You will be helping to show large companies that they need to follow the rules like anyone else."
Is anyone taking a cut if the case is successful? (Chris, via Facebook) Richard Lloyd has engaged Therium Litigation Funding to fund all of the costs of this precedent-setting claim, and – should the case be successful – Therium will take a fee, expected to be less than 15%. After this, all the damages awarded by the court will be distributed to those covered by the claim.
With representative action, third-party funding allows consumers to take on larger, well-funded defendants, such as Google, on a more level playing field.
MSE founder Martin Lewis has refused any fee for his role on the panel – and said any money due for his time should be given to charity.
Are there similarities between this case and the Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) scandal? With PPI claims, individuals have to claim of their own accord and can do so for free through the Financial Ombudsman Service without any external support. This is not the case with this claim – in this case, class members are not required to sign up or do anything.
If individuals were to pursue a claim against Google on their own they would not be entitled to any funding. Therefore, a claim of this scale would not be possible without Therium taking on the risk and costs of bringing legal action.
If I am part of the claim, will I pay anything? (Paul, via the comments below) No. There will be no cost to you for being a member of the representative action. Therium has taken out insurance to cover it if the case is lost and legal fees are owed to Google. It will take its cut if the case is successful, and the rest will be distributed among the claimants.
If the claim is successful, will any money be going to charity? (Scott, via Twitter) Google You Owe Us is seeking clarification from the courts on how any unclaimed funds might be directed towards charitable causes.
This happened five or six years ago – why is it being raised now? A claim has already been brought in the English High Court. In 2015, a group of individuals brought a claim against Google claiming their rights had been breached by Google because of this issue.
That case, Vidal Hall vs Google, was settled on confidential terms. Google You Owe Us says that case opened the door to the representative action it's now making.