Google loses ruling in Safari tracking case

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

Charlie Osborne Contributing Writer
Charlie Osborne is a cybersecurity journalist and photographer who writes for ZDNet and CNET from London. PGP Key: AF40821B.
Charlie Osborne
3 min read

Google's Safari issue goes back to nine months in 2011 and 2012.

In a landmark ruling, the UK's Court of Appeal has dismissed Google's request to prevent British Web users from suing the company over tracking cookies and privacy violations.

The decision was announced Friday, according to the BBC.

The case revolves around Apple's Safari browser, Google's Safari workaround, and cookies -- small text files installed on PCs that 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 computing devices and leading users to tailored advertisements. The DoubleClick ID Cookie, when settled within a user's browser, tracks and gathers data about the user based on Web activity and searches.

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

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

Google argued the point was moot because consumers suffered no financial hardship due to the practice. The UK's Court of Appeal disagreed. According to the court's judgment:

"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."

The Google Action Group, a not-for-profit group set up to manage the claims of consumers against Google, applauded the decision.

"This is a David and Goliath victory," one of the claimants, Marc Bradshaw, said in a statement from the Google Action Group. "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, a partner at Olswang who represents the claimants, said Google will now be held accountable for its choices.

"This is an important decision that prevents Google from evading or trivialising these very serious intrusions into the privacy of British consumers," he said in the statement. "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."

Google did not immediately return a request for comment.

This story originally posted as "Google loses Safari user tracking appeal" on ZDNet.