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Supreme Court blocks UK class-action lawsuit against Google

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Google has won a ground-breaking appeal at the UK’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, blocking a US-style class-action lawsuit brought in the English courts on behalf of more than 4m Apple iPhone users over Google’s alleged tracking of personal data.

The UK’s highest court prevented Richard Lloyd, a former director of consumer group Which?, from serving legal papers on Google in the US — putting an end to a £3.3bn lawsuit filed on behalf of Apple iPhone users that claimed their internet activity had been secretly tracked by Google between 2011 and 2012.

If Lloyd’s lawsuit had been allowed to proceed in the English courts, lawyers said it would have permanently changed the legal landscape for technology companies by allowing millions of consumers to band together in US class-action style lawsuits, and it would have opened the floodgates for mass litigation against IT companies over data breaches.

The case, which was brought under the Data Protection Act 1998, hinged on two points of English law — whether individuals should be compensated for having personal data taken without consent, as well as whether citizens could band together in a representative class-action style group to sue companies in the High Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the claim could not succeed. Lord George Leggatt, one of the justices of the Supreme Court, ruled that the lawsuit was “doomed to fail” because Lloyd was not able to prove that Google’s alleged unlawful conduct caused any financial damage or distress to individuals and Lloyd was not able to say what quantity of personal data — if any — was unlawfully processed.

Lloyd’s case had been brought on an “opt-out” basis, meaning that most people who owned an iPhone during the relevant period were automatically included — unless they specifically opted out of the lawsuit.

The ruling is highly significant because the English legal system has always deterred US-style class-action lawsuits and requires law firms to first sign up individuals and then assemble a group of claimants with the same interest, which is a time-consuming and expensive process. The only exception to this is in competition law cases where class actions are permitted for anti-trust breaches.

Google had argued that Lloyd’s case should be stopped, and contended that the court should not allow the case to continue as a representative action.

The ruling is a blow to other consumer groups and data protection lawyers who are bringing a number of claims and were awaiting the Supreme Court ruling before proceeding to trial.

Similar claims include a lawsuit against TikTok, which was launched by the former children’s commissioner on behalf of young people, as well as data breach claims against Facebook.

Lloyd said the ruling was a “blow for consumers” and he was “bitterly disappointed” that the court had “set the hurdles so high it’s impracticable for my case”.

Google said: “The claim was related to events that took place a decade ago and that we addressed at the time.”

TechUK, the trade body, welcomed the ruling, saying the case could have opened the door for “speculative and vexatious claims” with far-reaching consequences for the public sector and companies.

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