Privacy activists can sue Google in UK over Safari tracking, court decides

A group of privacy activists in England have won permission to sue Google in that country over its tricking of Apple’s(s aapl) Safari browser into accepting its tracking cookies, even when the browser settings forbade this.

The judge dealing with the case argued that it should be heard in an English court, because it dealt with a “developing area” of English law, and because it was unreasonable to expect a small group of individuals to spend a fortune suing Google in the U.S. when the alleged damage was done in England.

String of cases

Last October Google(s goog) saw a similar class action lawsuit against it thrown out of a U.S. court — the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had already fined the firm $22.5 million for the tracking trick, and in this case the judge argued that no-one could prove they had been harmed.

Then activists in the UK launched a similar lawsuit. Google argued that an English court couldn’t try these particular claims because of jurisdictional issues and the nature of the claims, and asked the court to rescind permission that allowed a suit over in the U.S., where Google is based.

On Thursday, the High Court in London turned down Google’s application with regards to one of the activists’ two claims: they can now continue in the England with a tort claim, based on the allegation that Google unlawfully misused private information. However, if the activists want to get an injunction ordering Google to stop tricking browsers – the rejected claim — they will have to go try their luck in a U.S. court.

According to the The Honourable Mr Justice Tugendhat:

” I am satisfied that there is a serious issue to be tried in each of the Claimants’ claims for misuse of private information… The Claimants’ application to rely on ground (9) in relation to the DPA [Data Protection Act] claim is allowed… the Claimants have clearly established that this jurisdiction is the appropriate one in which to try each of the above claims.”

Anonymized does not mean private

Tugendhat rejected Google’s claim that the relevant data was not private because it was anonymized, saying that didn’t stop it from making the claimants identifiable: “I find this a surprising submission to be made on behalf of Google Inc. It would not collect and collate the information unless doing so enabled it to produce something of value.”

He also pointed out that the claimants were just individual residents of the UK, and for them to sue in the U.S. would cost them a fortune. “The issues of English law raised by Google Inc are complicated ones, and in a developing area,” he said.

“If an American court had to resolve these issues no doubt it could do so, aided by expert evidence on English law. But that would be costly for all parties, and it would be better for all parties that the issues of English law be resolved by an English court, with the usual right of appeal, which would not be available if the issues were resolved by an American court deciding English law as a question of fact.”

One of the claimants, Judith Vidal-Hall, said in response to the ruling:

“We want to know how Google came to ignore user preferences to track us online; how did they get around Apple’s program settings – they have said it was accidental, but how do you accidentally interfere with someone else’s program? We want to know how long they have done this for, what they’ve done with our private data, how much they have made from this, and why they keep flouting privacy laws? This case is about protecting the rights of all internet users who use a company that is virtually a monopoly but seems intent on ignoring their right to privacy.”

What’s more, although they claim not to be “anti-Google”, the group promised to also step up its campaign against the company over its tax avoidance schemes and links with government.

Google responded to the ruling by bringing up the thrown-out Californian case again, adding:

“We still don’t think that this case meets the standards required in the UK for it to go to trial, and we’ll be appealing today’s ruling.”