Google loses Safari user tracking appeal

The floodgates are now open for UK users to sue Google over privacy violations caused by tracking cookies.

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In a landmark ruling, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales has dismissed Google's wish to prevent British web users from being able to sue the firm over tracking cookies and privacy violations.

The decision was announced Friday, as reported by the BBC.

The case revolved around Apple's Safari browser, Google's Safari workaround and cookies -- small text files installed on PCs which record data on surfing activity. In spite of default privacy settings and user preferences, including an opt-out of consent to be tracked by cookies, Google's tracking cookies gathered information on Safari browser users for nine months in 2011 and 2012.

Google profits from DoubleClick tracking cookies by installing them on PC user machines and leading users to tailored adverts. The DoubleClick ID Cookie, when settled within a user's browser, tracks and gathers data about the user based on their web activity and searches.

This information can include surfing habits, ethnicity, sexual interests, religious and political beliefs and potentially financial situation data.

Three British computer users brought the case to court, arguing that Google has ignored consumer wishes to not have tracking cookies installed on their machines.

While Google argued the point was moot because consumers suffered no financial hardship because of the practice -- and tracking cookies are therefore not a serious issue -- the UK's Court of Appeal disagreed. The court's judgement is as follows:

"These claims raise serious issues which merit a trial. They concern what is alleged to have been the secret and blanket tracking and collation of information, often of an extremely private nature [..] about and associated with the claimants' Internet use, and the subsequent use of that information for about nine months. The case relates to the anxiety and distress this intrusion upon autonomy has caused."

UK web users who accessed the web through Apple devices, including Macs, iPhones and iPads during the nine-month period now have carte blanche to take the tech giant to court if they feel their privacy has been invaded.

According to the BBC, Google is "disappointed with the court's decision."

In a news release, the Google Action group -- a non-profit set up to manage the claims of consumers against Google -- welcomed the decision. One of the claimants against the tech giant, Marc Bradshaw, said:

"This is a David and Goliath victory. The Court of Appeal has ensured Google cannot use its vast resources to evade English justice. Ordinary computer users like me will now have the right to hold this giant to account before the courts for its unacceptable, immoral and unjust actions."

Dan Tench, partner at Olswang who acted for the claimants, commented:

"This is an important decision that prevents Google from evading or trivialising these very serious intrusions into the privacy of British consumers. Google, a company that makes billions from advertising knowledge, claims that it was unaware that was secretly tracking Apple users for a period of nine months and had argued that no harm was done because the matter was trivial as consumers had not lost out financially.

The Court of Appeal saw these arguments for what they are: a breach of consumers' civil rights and actionable before the English courts. We look forward to holding Google to account for its actions."

ZDNet has reached out to Google and will update if we hear back.

Read on: In Google's world

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