Google successfully avoids a £3b fine for historic user tracking

The tech giant's clandestine tracking and data collection could've resulted in a £750 payout for affected users.

 

Google has managed to avoid a massive £3.2 billion fine, winning an appeal in the UK's Supreme Court.

Previous Which? director, Richard Lloyd, sued Google for secretly collecting the user data of around four million individuals between 2011 and 2012. The information was gathered via the Safari browser, available for iPhone, iPad, and Mac users.

Plenty of UK consumers will be disappointed by the landmark verdict delivered on Wednesday, particularly as Google had previously assured users that they would not be subject to third-party tracking.

Why wasn't Lloyd's case successful?

The judge presiding over Wednesday's ruling stated that there was no evidence that the millions of affected iPhone users had been harmed in any way by Google's actions – despite the inherently personal nature of the involved data, which regarded users' race, ethnicity, health, sexuality, and financial information.

 

Watching closely

In 2011 and 2012, advertising cookies were placed on the devices of users utilizing the Safari browser to visit sites under the umbrella of the DoubleClick Google advertising network.

Prior to these events, Google had reached out to Safari users, reassuring them that the browser's default settings blocked third-party cookies and worked in much the same way as opting out of Google tracking cookies. Despite this, cookies still found their way onto user devices.

Google then claimed that any tracking was done purely by accident, and that it did not intend to bypass browser's settings. However, the FTC struck the tech company with a $22.5m civil penalty, and a further $17m was paid out to US states in a settlement, where Google staunchly refused to accept liability.

Worryingly, this is not the first time that Google has been accused of covertly collecting user data.

In 2019, the privacy-focused Brave browser revealed that Google had been using secret web pages in order to collect data, which would then be used to serve individuals with eerie targeted advertisements.

A ground-breaking judgment

Now, privacy advocates across the globe will be understandably frustrated by the Supreme Court's judgment – which could still have a huge impact on how many data privacy cases are reported, and embolden individuals in the UK to defend their consumer rights when privacy laws are breached and seek representative action, even against seemingly untouchable tech titans like Google.

The company, however, is embroiled in another historic legal battle, as it attempts to appeal against a £3.8b fine imposed by the European Court of Justice.

Google stands accused of strong-arming phone makers to pre-install apps, like Chrome and Google Search, and excluding alternative search engines or browsers – a claim that first came to light in 2018. If Google's five-day appeal fails, the company could eventually be dismantled into numerous smaller businesses.

The cookie crumbles

Lloyd's case also highlights the evolution, and imminent downfall, of the third-party cookie – a mechanism that's already been blocked by Firefox and Safari browsers.

In 2020, Google likewise announced that it planned to phase out support for third-party cookies across two years. This plan to clean up the Chrome browser is currently under investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), however, and Google has since stated that no changes are due to be made before 2022.

Eliminating cookies has been claimed as a huge privacy win by advocates and users fed up with invasive ads that demonstrate a flagrant disregard for online privacy. Advertisers have expressed concern, however, and will likely find it much harder to collate user information and consumer habits.

More to come?

It's all too easy to feel discouraged by the outcome of Lloyd's case. However, one particular remark from the presiding judge (and the end of the cookie era) should instill fresh hope into the privacy-minded. The judge claimed that future class actions shouldn't be ruled out, and could still be brought to court, providing that the damages could be calculated.

Written by: Hannah Hart

Originally hailing from Wales, Hannah Hart graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a 1:1 in Creative Writing, going on to work as an Editor across a number of trade magazines. As a professional writer, Hannah has worked across both digital and print media, and is familiar with collating news pieces, in depth reports and producing by lines for international publications. Otherwise, she can be found pouring over a tarot deck or spending more hours than she'll ever admit playing Final Fantasy 14.

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