The case against Google

On Monday, in a room at the High Court, a judge will consider whether Google should answer to British justice or whether it can only answer to Californian courts, as it argues.  This is what it’s all about.

Google has faced massive fines for breaching the privacy of internet users surfing on Apple’s Safari browser.  The browser makes it very easy to switch off tracking.  You click on private browsing and away you go.  It’s a handy tool if you are searching for a present for a loved one or simply don’t want to have ads based on what you momentarily review. Seems straightforward, clear and no one could ignore that, right?  Wrong. Google somehow allowed a workaround to ignore the private browsing setting.  An accident is what they apparently claim.  But the workaround meant there was no guarantee that any Safari user could browse privately.   And consumers only found out about this when a researcher at Stanford University stumbled across the breach.  The researcher, Jonathon Mayer, claims that Google exploited a feature in Safari to bypass the privacy settings which were designed to block third party cookies.

In the States, consumers’ interests were represented by  the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which in February last year announced that Google had agreed to pay a $22.5million fine for breaching its FTC Control Order, a legal commitment enforced on Google for previous privacy violations.  In other words, because Google has repeatedly flouted privacy rights, they had to agree to a code of conduct to ensure good behaviour.  When they got caught out again, they got penalised.  

In the UK, our Information Commissioner’s Office announced it would investigate whether Google had broken UK law too.  After all, British consumers’ rights were likely to have been breached too. But after the announcement, nothing.   British consumers had to resort to the courts to protect their right to privacy.  So earlier this year, the law firm Olswang filed a claim against Google on behalf of ordinary consumers.

The battle begins on Monday, when Google will likely argue that it does not answer to English courts.  The Safari users are determined to hold the company to account here, one way or the other.