A group of British internet users have won a landmark decision by the High Court that Google will have to answer a claim in England that accuses the internet giant of ignoring users’ privacy.

The High Court rejected Google’s attempts to have the case thrown out.   Google had argued that the appropriate forum should be in California, where the company is based, not in England where users had chosen to use its services.   The case relates to a breach by Google of Apple’s Safari browsers settings that have already led to the company being successfully sued in the United States.

The High Court rejected Google’s arguments and stated that “there is a serious issue to be tried in each of the Claimant’s claims for misuse of private information” and “the Claimants have clearly established that this Jurisdiction is the appropriate one” in which to bring their claims.

At the hearing, Google had argued that the information that it was collecting from the Claimants was not private as it was anonymous and to this the Judge stated: “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.  The value it produces is the facility for targeted advertising of which the Claimants complain, and which yields the spectacular revenues for which Google Inc is famous.”

Judith Vidal-Hall, one of the claimants who had campaigned under the name Safari Users Against Google’s Secret Tracking, is delighted that Google will have to answer questions in open court.

“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.”

The campaigners now plan to step up their actions against Google, launching a new broader campaigning group to draw attention to the company’s behaviour.  The Google Governance Campaign (www.googlegovernance.com) aims to highlight Google’s approach to the collection and use of private data, and its conduct in the United Kingdom including its track record on tax and links with government.

Marc Bradshaw, another of the claimants, says that Google has brought this move on itself.

“When a market leader misbehaves, repeatedly, and seems to learn nothing from its errors, someone needs to stand up and persuade it to change.  Our goal, as a campaigning group, will be to highlight every bad decision Google makes and to embarrass it into behaving more responsibly.  If Google starts to respect privacy again and participates in this country in a responsible way, our campaign will be unnecessary.  Until then, our fight continues – in the English courts, in the media, in Parliament and online.  Our message to Google is clear: stop abusing your users.”

Dan Tench, the Olswang partner leading the case for the claimants, welcomed the High Court decision:

“It is only right that English claimants should have a case heard in England, and not have to travel to California because it suits Google better.  Google has unlimited resources to deal with legal matters.  Ordinary Britons do not.  This was a flagrant, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to evade justice.  The court saw through it.  We now look forward to the discovery process where we expect to find out what really happened at Google to cause it to breach privacy laws.”