Google Goliath faces an army of consumer Davids in iPhone fight

Former Which? boss says Google You Owe Us and plans to bring a court case that could prove far more important than the money if he wins 

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Thursday 30 November 2017 11:45 GMT
The iPhone: Google is accused of illegally harvesting data from users between 2011 and 2012
The iPhone: Google is accused of illegally harvesting data from users between 2011 and 2012 (Reuters)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Privacy is a malleable thing in the age of the internet.

Every time you log on you’ll find trackers placed on to your phone or your computer with the express aim of finding out what you’re up to so it’s easier to sell you stuff.

But there are still rules, and the giants of the internet era shouldn’t be allowed to get away with playing fast and loose with them.

Google is the latest Silicon Valley titan to be accused of doing just that by placing tracking cookies on iPhones for several months between 2011 and 2012.

The default settings on Safari, Apple’s web browser, were set to block them but Google is alleged to have found a way to work around that; the Safari Work Around, as it is known.

This has incensed former Which? boss Richard Lloyd, who describes it as “a massive abuse of trust”.

He’d like to bring the company to book, but what chance does an individual consumer like him have when confronted with such a behemoth? A transnational, monopolistic money making machine that can hire a phalanx of ruinously expensive lawyers with just the small change in its corporate back pocket?

Even a relatively prosperous, well-connected and influential individual like Mr Lloyd looks like only the tiniest of Davids when set against a Goliath like Google.

But what if our David forms a gang? What if he goes into battle with 5.4 million iPhone users behind him? Then the fight looks a little different.

This is what Mr Lloyd is proposing to do via his “Google You Owe Us” action group.

His proposed class action has found a litigation funder with enough money to hire Mishcon de Reya, a Legal 500 law firm that eats rusty nails for breakfast, generates profits of more than £1m a go for its partners, and can stand against any firm Google brings to the party.

I should at this point make clear that I’m fairly sure that I’m part of the class.

But while Mishcon stands to get even richer off the fees, you and I won’t.

Even a multimillion pound ruling in Mr Lloyd’s favour will yield perhaps only a few hundred pounds apiece when the pie has been divvied up between eligible iPhone users. It probably won’t even be enough to buy a half a new iPhone X.

Of far greater import is the principle of the thing, of a group of consumers being able to send a message to Silicon Valley: Play nice and play by the rules or you’ll have to pay up.

In an era where these businesses are acquiring a quite frightening amount of information about us and our lives, and thus a quite frightening amount of power, Mr Lloyd’s action could scarcely be more relevant.

There’s also, I admit, something delightful, even punk rock, about one man flipping off a giant corporation – which of course says it will fight the lawsuit – and potentially bringing it to heel.

If you had an affected iPhone you probably don’t need the small amount of money you’ll get if Mr Lloyd wins. But in today’s world we all of us need a few more people like him.

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