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Judge rules against 'Google You Owe Us' campaign group

Twenty thousand consumers have been struck a blow in their fight against Google, after a judge ruled against a campaign group which claims 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 through bypassing the default privacy settings on the iPhone. It launched legal action last November, claiming an estimated 5.4 million people in England and Wales may be affected. 

Those who thought they were affected were able to sign up to the group action against Google, and after mass press coverage, around 20,000 did so.

But High Court judge Mr Justice Warby has now blocked the group litigation.

Google You Owe Us group leader Richard Lloyd, who is the former executive director of Which?, called the decision "extremely disappointing" and said there are plans to appeal it.

Why was the claim 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.

The legal challenge from Google You Owe Us was what's known as a 'representative action' – essentially, a claim brought by an individual on behalf of a group of people. 

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 – were a sounding board for decisions made by the group.

What does the judgment say?

The High Court judgment, which was released today, states that "there is no dispute that it is arguable that Google's alleged role in the collection, collation, and use of data obtained via the Safari workaround was wrongful, and a breach of duty".

But the judge in the case, Mr Justice Warby, also said that in the five or six years since the issue first came to light, none of the individuals potentially affected "demonstrated any interest in the common sense of the term, by coming forward to claim, or complain, or to identify himself or herself as a victim", bar the odd exception.

Mr Justice Warby concluded by saying that the case could not proceed.

'An analogue decision in a digital age'

Lloyd, who leads Google You Owe Us and is the 'representative claimant' in the case, said: "Today's judgment is extremely disappointing and effectively leaves millions of people without any practical way to seek redress and compensation when their personal data has been misused.

"Google's business model is based on using personal data to target adverts to consumers and they must ask permission before using this data. The court accepted that people did not give permission in this case, yet slammed the door shut on holding Google to account. 

"People are only now beginning to realise the implications of losing control of their personal data in this way. Closing this route to redress puts consumers in the UK at risk and sends a signal to the world's largest tech companies that they can continue to get away with treating our information irresponsibly.  

"This is an analogue decision in a digital age. There now seems no alternative but for the Government to fill this gap by legislating to give groups of consumers the right to affordable collective redress."

What does Google say?

A spokesperson said: "The privacy and security of our users is extremely important to us. This claim is without merit, and we're pleased the court has dismissed it."

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