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Appeal court bombshell: Google must face British justice for 'Safari spying'

Angry Apple users get their shot at licking the Chocolate Factory

By Iain Thomson, 27 Mar 2015

Apple Safari-using Brits, who claim they were tracked by Google's adbots without permission, can sue Google in the UK, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales has ruled.

"This is a David and Goliath victory," said Marc Bradshaw, one of three people taking Google, a powerful advertising giant based in Mountain View, California, to court in Blighty's capital.

"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."

Bradshaw and co accuse Google of unfairly circumventing people's privacy settings in Safari, allowing the search giant to follow Safari users around the internet and show them tailored advertising.

Safari can be configured to reject a website's cookies unless there is an interaction with a web page – for example, Safari will accept a login cookie if the user logs into a forum site using a username and password form.

To get around this privacy control, Google faked a form submission when the browser visited a server run by Google, effectively tricking Safari into accepting tracking cookies that identified users, it's claimed. The use of this technique was discovered by a Stanford researcher, and led to calls for an FTC investigation and lawsuits in the US and UK.

Bradshaw and his chums, working under the Google Action Group banner, are trying to take the California goliath to court in London, claiming a breach of their right to privacy.

Google argued unsuccessfully that the UK court system had no jurisdiction in this case, and also asked for a dismissal on the grounds that no one suffered financial harm. On Friday, the court rejected both arguments, and ruled the case will have to be answered.

"These claims raise serious issues which merit a trial," the appeal court stated.

"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."

The decision could allow "millions" of other Apple users who picked up the stealth cookies between summer 2011 and spring 2012, to join the legal fight, the trio said, and their lawyers are gearing up for the battle.

"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," said Dan Tench, partner at the plaintiffs' lawyer Olswang.

"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."

Google was not replying to requests for comment as we hit the publish button. ®

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