Today is Data Privacy Day – and new lawsuit has been launched against Google in the UK – one which highlights a number of key issues. It could be very important – a ‘landmark case’ according to a report on Reuters. The most notable thing about the case, for me, is that it is consumer-led: UK consumers are no longer relying on the authorities, and the Information Commissioner’s Office in particular, to safeguard their privacy. They’re taking it into their own hands.
The case concerns the way that Google exploited a bug in Apple’s Safari browser to enable it to bypass customers’ privacy settings. As reported on Reuters:
“Through its DoubleClick adverts, Google designed a code to circumvent privacy settings in order to deposit the cookies on computers in order to provide user-targeted advertising. The claimants thought that cookies were being blocked on their devices because of Safari’s strict default privacy settings and separate assurances being given by Google at the time. This was not the case.”
The group of consumers have engaged noted media and telecomms lawyers Olswang for the case. Dan Tench, the partner at Olswang responsible for the case, told Reuters:
“Google has a responsibility to consumers and should be accountable for the trust placed in them. We hope that they will take this opportunity to give Safari users a proper explanation about what happened, to apologise and, where appropriate, compensate the victims of their intrusion.”
For further information – and if you want to join the action – Tench can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s also a Facebook page for the suit: https://www.facebook.com/SafariUsersAgainstGooglesSecretTracking
What’s important here?
The case highlights several crucial aspects of privacy on the net. The first is the extent to which we can – or should be able to – rely on the settings we make on our browsers. What was happening here is that those settings were being overridden. Now it’s a moot point quite how many people use their privacy settings – or indeed even know that they exist – but if those settings are being overridden by anyone, let alone a company as big and respected as Google, it’s something that we need to know about and to fight. Browser settings – and privacy settings in general – are the key control, perhaps the only control, that individuals have over their online privacy, so we need to know that they work if we are to have any trust. A lack of trust is something that damages everyone.
The second is that the case highlights that users aren’t going to take things lying down – and neither are they going to rely on what often seem to be supine regulators, regulators unwilling to take on the ‘big boys’ of the internet, regulators who seem to take their role as supporters of business much more seriously than their role as protectors of the public. Alexander Hanff, a privacy advocate who is assisting Olswang on this case, said that:
“This group action is not about getting rich by suing Google, this lawsuit is about sending a very clear message to corporations that circumventing privacy controls will result in significant consequences. The lawsuit has the potential of costing Google £10s of millions, perhaps even breaking £100m in damages given the potential number of claimants – making it the biggest group action ever launched in the UK. It should also be seen as a message to the Information Commissioner’s Office that they are in contempt of the British public and are not doing their job.”
This last point is crucial – and it may suggest not that the Information Commissioner’s Office are not doing their job but that their job is one that needs redefining. The ICO sometimes appears to be caught between two stools – their role is more complex than just as protectors of the public. They’re not a Privacy Commissioner’s Office – and perhaps that is what we need. An office with teeth whose prime task is to protect individuals’ privacy.
What happens next?
This lawsuit will be watched very carefully by everyone in the field of online privacy. The number of people who join the case is one question – there are plenty who could, as Safari, though somewhat a niche browser on computers, is the default browser on iPhones, so is used by many millions in the UK. How it progresses has yet to be seen – there are many different possibilities. If nothing else, I hope it acts as a wake-up-call for all involved: Google, the ICO, and the public.