As more individuals become aware of the way in which organisations such as Facebook, and Google have used their personal data unlawfully, then the prospect of litigation, and class actions, seems increasingly likely. However, the recent case of Lloyd v Google  EWHC 2599 (QB) demonstrates that it doesn’t necessarily follow that a clear breach of data protection legislation will result in a successful claim for damages. The case shows that even if claimants can prove that there has been a breach of data protection legislation (now the GDPR and DPA 2018) they need to identify what harm the breach has caused and how the damage has been caused by the breach. This will inevitably be a fact specific exerciser.
The background-the Safari Workaround and DoubleClick Ad Cookie
The case concerned the use, by Google, of a cookie known as the “DoubleClick Ad cookie” between 2011 -2012. Google allegedly used the cookie to secretly track the internet activity of iPhone users in the US and the UK. Ordinarily the Safari browser (developed by Apple) had a default setting that blocked the use of third-party cookies, such as the DoubleClick Ad cookie. However, Google was able to exploit certain exceptions to this default blockage and implement the so called “Safari Workaround” which enabled Google to set the cookie on an iPhone, when the user used the Safari browser. This gave Google access to a huge amount of browser generated personal information, including the address or URL of the website which the browser is displaying to the user. It was claimed that this information enabled Google to obtain or deduce other sensitive information about individuals, such as their interests and habits, race ethnicity, class, political or religious view, health, age, sexuality and financial position. Google was also alleged to have aggregated this information to create lists of different types of people, such as “football lovers’, and offered these lists to subscribing advertisers.
Regulatory action was against Google in the USA with Google agreeing to pay US$25.5 million civil penalty to settle charges brought by the US Federal Trade Commission, and a further US$17 million to settle state consumer-based actions. No such regulatory action as taken by the Information Commissioner even though the breach clearly affected UK iPhone users.
The representative claim
The action against google was brought by Mr Lloyd who was the only named claimant. However, he brought this action as a representative of a much larger class of people. This is a novel type of litigation that allows a representative to sue in a representative capacity on behalf of a class of people who have “the same interest” in the claim. It was not entirely clear how big the class was, but estimates ranged between 5.4-4.4 million people. Google not surprising was keen that permission was denied, bearing in mind it estimated its potential liability (if the case was successful) of between £1-3 billion.
Mr Lloyd argued that he and each member of the group/class he represented had a right to be compensated “for the infringement of their data protection rights”. Specifically, it was alleged that Google had carried out the secret tracking and collation of personal data without the data subject’s consent or knowledge; that this was a breach of Google’s duty under s 4(4) of the DPA 1998 and that the data subjects were entitled to compensation under s 13 DPA 1998.
In other words, the fact of the contravention gave them a right to be compensated. Neither Mr Lloyd or any member of the group alleged or gave evidence about any financial loss, distress or anxiety. There were no individual allegations of harm. In fact, Mr Lloyd asserted that the claim was generic and claimed an equal, standard “tariff” award for each member of the class (the claim was for £750 per person). This turned out to be fatal to the claim.
Litigation against a US based company
Any litigant, or group of litigants, considering an action against Apple or Google or any other such company that is based outside the UK first need the permission of the High Court in order to serve a claim against a defendant outside of the jurisdiction of the domestic courts. Before the court will grant permission, the claimant must prove three things. First that the case falls within one of the listed “jurisdictional gateways”; second, that the case has a reasonable prospect of success and finally that England is the appropriate place to deal with the case. The High Court had no difficulty deciding that England would be the natural jurisdiction for the case since the claimants were all in the UK and the alleged damage had been incurred in the UK. However, the High Court Judge found that Mr Lloyd’s case failed on the remaining two issues and denied permission for the case to proceed.
The Court identified that the relevant gateway in this case was that the claimant had to prove they had a good arguable claim in tort and the damage was sustained in England & Wales. The Judge was clear that a claim for damages under the DPA 1998 is a claim in tort. He was also satisfied that each member of the class was (for at least some of the relevant period) within the jurisdiction when they connected to the internet using the Safari browser.
However, the real and substantial issue in this case was whether the Safari Workaround had caused “damage” within the meaning of the DPA 1998. The Court engaged in a lengthy analysis of the case law on DPA damages and concluded that the claimants had not sustained damages in this case. On this basis the court decided that Mr Lloyd did not have a good arguable case or a reasonable prospect of success.
Damages under the DPA 1998
Section 13 of the DPA 1998 provided that an individual who suffers damage by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of the DPA 1998 is entitled to compensation from the data controller for that damage.
The High Court decided that giving the words their natural meaning, this statutory right to compensation arises where
(a) there has been a breach of the DPA; and
(b) as a result, the claimant suffers damage.
These are two separate events connected by a causal link. In short, the breach must cause the damage. Based on this logic, it necessarily follows that some breaches will not give rise to damages. The High Court judge suggested some examples where a data controller processes personal data in breach of the DPA, but where the breach may not warrant an award of compensation, such as:
- recording inaccurate data, but not using or disclosing it
- Holding, but not disclosing, using or consulting personal data that are irrelevant
- Holding data for too long
- Failing, without consequences, to take adequate security measures.
Of course, this is not to say that these types of breaches could never give rise to a successful claim for damages, as much will depend on the context and facts of the case. However, the Court did suggest that data subjects had alternative remedies such as rectification, erasure and objection.
One of the key arguments presented by Lloyd was that the claimants had incurred damage because they lost control of their data. According to the Court, there will be circumstances where the loss of control may have significantly harmful consequences, such as in Vidal Hall. (Google in v Vidal-Hall and others & The Information Commissioner  EWCA Civ 311) The focus in that case was on the significant distress caused to the claimants by the delivery to their screens of unwanted advertising material. However, decision was very fact specific; it seemed that the type of information that had secretly been tracked and used to send targeting advertising was of a particularly private and sensitive nature, such that it would have caused harm to the claimants had any one else seen their computer screens.
The High Court in Lloyd v Google also accepted that delivery of unwanted commercial advertising can be upsetting in other ways, for example where repeated or bulk unwanted communications:
- Is so distressing it constitutes harassment even if the content is inherently innocuous
- Infringes a person’s right to respect for their autonomy
- Represents a material interference with their freedom of choice over how they lead their life.
However, on the facts of the case the Court concluded that the claimants had not provided any particulars of any damage suffered. Rather the claimants seemed to be relying on the fact that the claimants were entitled to be compensated because of the breach alone. The judge rejected this as a possibility.
A Court cannot award compensation just because the data protection rules have been breached. The Court also rejected the idea that the claimants should be compensated in order to “censure” the defendant’s behaviour. The Court also rejected any argument that damages under the DPA should be awarded in order on a sort of “restitutionary” basis, that is ‘calculated by reference to the market value of the data which has been refused’.
Representative action cases- what lessons can be learnt?
This was a novel litigation, it involved one named claimant bringing an action on behalf of a large group. The cation faced difficulties right from the start, not least in trying to identify the group. The Judge identified three real difficulties with this type of action:
- The representative (Lloyd) and the members of the class do not all have the “same interest” which is an essential requirement for any representative action. Some people may have suffered no damage and others different types of damage. Consequently, they did not all have the same interest in the action.
- Even if it was possible to define the class of people represented, it would be practically impossible to identify all members of the class.
- The court would not exercise its discretion to allow this case to go forward, particularly given the costs of the litigation, the fact that the damages payable to each individual (were the case to succeed) would be modest, and that none of the class had shown any interest in, appeared to care about in the claim.
Anyone contemplating pursuing this type of claim in future would be well advised to carefully consider and take on board the judge’s criticisms and seek to address them before pursing an action.
Susan Wolf will be delivering the forthcoming GDPR workshop in Birmingham on the 19th November. Book your place now!