A Tad arrogant? Google: UK Privacy Laws Don’t apply

Google is facing a landmark group legal action by furious Brits over the way it sneakily circumvented settings on the iPhone to track their web usage. Google has told British consumers taking legal action against it for privacy breaches that it does not have to answer to the English courts and that UK privacy laws don’t apply. The Tech giant has already come under fire for failing to pay tax in the UK, during his last visit to the UK, its CEO had to adopt a defensive stance regarding the tax question and now critics are saying the latest row is further evidence of Google making up the rules to suit itself.

Legal documents filed by the company in response to a claim by three people backed by the campaign group, Safari Users Against Google’s Secret Tracking, show that Google will contest the right of Safari users in the UK to bring a case in the country they live in and where they use Google’s service. The search giant has dismissed the Safari claims as not serious, saying that the browsing habits of internet users are not protected as personal information, even when they potentially concern their physical health or sexuality.

image credit: via Flickr by Robert Scoble

Judith Vidal-Hall, one of the claimants, is appalled by this:

“Google’s position on the law is the same as its position on tax: they will only play or pay on their home turf.  What are they suggesting- that they will force Apple users whose privacy was violated to pay to travel to California to take action when they offer a service in this country on a .co.uk site?  This matches their attitude to consumer privacy.  They don’t respect it and they don’t consider themselves to be answerable to our laws on it.”

Google refused to accept service of the lawsuit in the UK, instead forcing the victims to serve on the company in California. Their claim is based on Google’s admission that tracking cookies were installed on the computers and mobile devices of people using Apple’s Safari internet browser even when they had expressly chosen to block them.  These cookies allowed Google to secretly track the browsing activities of millions of Safari users, without their knowledge, and to collate and use that data.

The practice was only stopped when a law student and security researcher noticed Google’s activity and published an exposé in the United States.  Google paid a record $22.5million settlement to the US Federal Trade Commission to settle charges. According to a Telegraph article written by Christopher Williams:

“Google was last year found to have circumvented privacy settings in the iPhone web browser software, Safari, by a researcher at Stanford University in California. By default, Apple prevents websites from installing small text files called cookies that allow advertising companies such as Google to track consumers across the web. Google, however, wrote software to work around Apple’s settings”.

Apparently, UK citizens are not the first to be told by global tech giants that they cannot sue them in their own jurisdiction. The same issue was the main subject of a recent academic paper written by Christopher Parsons at the University of Victoria in Canada  where a number of cases have been brought by Canadian authorities against social network companies in the US.

Marc Bradshaw, another claimant, believes this latest development is just another ruse by Google to avoid responsibility for its actions: “It seems to us absurd to suggest that consumers can’t bring a claim against a company which is operating in the UK and is even constructing a $1 billion headquarters in London. “If consumers can’t bring a civil claim against a company in a country where it operates, the only way of ensuring it behaves is by having a robust regulator.

“But the UK regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, has said to me that all it can do is fine Google if it breaks the law, but Google clearly doesn’t think that it is bound by that law.  Fines would be useless – even if Google agreed to pay them – because Google earns more than the maximum fine in less than two hours.  With no restraint Google is free to continue to invade our privacy whether we like it or not.”

Mr Bradshaw wrote to the Information Commissioner asking him to impose “effective sanctions to rein in Google” and to ensure it complies with the law. The internet giant is pooling data from all of its products giving it a comprehensive record of each internet user’s preferences.

Dan Tench, a partner at Olswang, the law firm acting for the claimants, said:

“Our letter to the Information Commissioner conveyed our client’s position that fines won’t work and urged him to change Google’s behaviour through an enforcement notice or other alternative sanctions. The response was that they found our client’s position simplistic and difficult to implement. But a leading QC disagrees and has advised that the Information Commissioner does have stronger powers. We note that France’s regulator, CNIL, has been more robust, announcing a final ultimatum to Google to ensure quickly that its privacy policy complies with European law.  Our regulator should listen to consumers and recognise that other sanctions are needed to get Google to behave.”

Marc Bradshaw continues: “Google is one of the largest companies in the world with huge financial resources and access to the most expensive lawyers around the world. Regulators must rise to this challenge and rein in Google. If they fail, every internet user in this country will suffer and the right to online privacy could be lost forever.”

Google’s application to dismiss the British case is due to be heard this October. What do you think of its current stance?