Google loses crucial jurisdiction battle in the UK

Ross McKean

As Datonomy reported (see below), Google has been fined by French and Spanish data protection authorities following almost two years of toing and froing with European data protection regulators over its consolidated privacy policy.  The tiny fines and are unlikely to change Google’s privacy practices.

However, Google now has a larger headache to deal with following the judgment of Mr Justice Tugendhat in the English High Court, handed down yesterday (Judith Vidal-Hall and Others v Google Inc in the Queen’s Bench Division, Case number: HQ13X03128).  The claimants, represented by Olswang the lawfirm behind Datonomy, are a group of users of Apple’s Safari internet browser.  

The Safari users group claim that Google Inc illegally tracked and gathered information about their browsing activities by implementing a workaround to the default Safari browser block on third party cookies. 

Under the Civil Procedure Rules (the procedural rules for parties to civil litigation in the English courts), the claimants needed the permission of the High Court to serve proceedings out of the jurisdiction on Google, Inc, a Delaware incorporated company.  Google Inc applied in August 2013 for an order declaring that the English courts had no jurisdiction to try the claims and to set aside the service of the claim form. 

The High Court disagreed, finding in favour of the UK claimants holding that there was a serious issue to be tried in relation to claims for misuse of private information and in relation to various breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 and that the claimants had established that the UK is the appropriate jurisdiction in which to try the claims.       

Although there was no conclusive view given on the merits, Google Inc now faces the prospect of defending a claim in the English High Court which in contrast to data protection regulators, enjoys considerably more fire power to impose remedies and ensure that judgments are complied with.  Any award of damages, even if relatively small, could result in a significant liability for Google when multiplied by the millions of Safari users in the UK.

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