The High Court has blocked a mass legal action against Google over claims that it collected sensitive personal data from more than four million iPhone users.
Mr Justice Warby, sitting in London, announced his decision on Monday.
The litigation was brought by campaign group Google You Owe Us, led by former Which? director Richard Lloyd.
The tech giant faced claims that it bypassed privacy settings on Apple iPhone handsets between August 2011 and February 2012 and used data to divide people into categories for advertisers.
The campaign group hoped to win at least £1 billion in compensation for an estimated 4.4 million users of the device in the UK.
At the first hearing of the case in London in May, lawyers for Mr Lloyd told the court that information collected by Google included racial or ethnic origin, physical and mental health, political affiliations or opinions, sexuality and sexual interests and social class.
They said information about an individual’s financial situation, shopping habits and their geographical location were also obtained.
Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Mr Lloyd, said information was then “aggregated” and users were put into groups such as “football lovers” or “current affairs enthusiasts”.
These were then offered to subscribing advertisers to choose from when deciding who to direct their marketing to.
Mr Tomlinson said the data was gathered through “clandestine tracking and collation” of information relating to internet usage on iPhone users’ Safari browser – known as the “Safari Workaround”.
He told Mr Justice Warby the activity was exposed by a PhD researcher in 2012 and Google has already paid 39.5 million US dollars to settle claims in the United States.
Google argued that the type of “representative action” being brought against it by Mr Lloyd is unsuitable and should not go ahead.
Lawyers for the California-based company said there is no suggestion that the Safari Workaround resulted in any information being disclosed to third parties.
They also said it is not possible to identify those who may have been affected and the claim has no prospect of success.
Mr Justice Warby said the application by Mr Lloyd was for permission to serve the proceedings on Google, explaining: “Permission is needed because Google is a foreign corporation, and it has not agreed to accept service of the proceedings.”
The claim alleges breach of duty under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), he said.
Google’s estimate of the potential liability “if some of the claimant’s per capita figures for damages were accepted” is between £1 billion and £3 billion.
The judge said: “There is no dispute that it is arguable that Google’s alleged role in the collection, collation, and use of data obtained via the Safari Workaround was wrongful, and a breach of duty.”
He added that the main issues in the application were whether the “pleaded facts disclose any basis for claiming compensation” under the DPA and, if so, “whether the court should or would permit the claim to continue as a representative action”.
The judge said he had concluded that the answer to both those questions “is no”.
He said the facts alleged “do not support the contention that Mr Lloyd or any of those whom he represents” have suffered damage within the meaning of the DPA.
He ruled that Mr Lloyd had “failed to establish” the claim has a “real prospect of success”, and announced that “permission to serve these proceedings on Google outside the jurisdiction is refused”.
The campaign group said it would seek to appeal.
Mr Lloyd said: “Today’s judgment is extremely disappointing and effectively leaves millions of people without any practical way to seek redress and compensation when their personal data has been misused.”
He said: “People are only now beginning to realise the implications of losing control of their personal data in this way. Closing this route to redress puts consumers in the UK at risk and sends a signal to the world’s largest tech companies that they can continue to get away with treating our information irresponsibly.
“This is an analogue decision in a digital age. There now seems no alternative but for the Government to fill this gap by legislating to give groups of consumers the right to affordable collective redress.”