The UK Court of Appeal has rejected Google's argument that a group of Apple users cannot sue Google in Britain, where the privacy laws are stricter and Google is facing an antitrust investigation, and should instead file charges in the U.S.

The ruling comes after a group called Safari Users Against Google's Secret Tracking accused Google of circumventing weaknesses in Apple's Safari browser used for Macs, iPads, and iPhones to install tracking cookies that Google uses to deliver targeted advertisements even when the user specifically instructed Safari to disable cookies during a nine-month period spanning 2011 and 2012.

The DoubleClick cookie is a text file embedded in a website in Google's advertising network that is installed in a user's browser to gather information about the user based on browsing activities. It can potentially collect information about the user's web browsing habits, political and religious beliefs, sexual interests, and even financial information, unless the user explicitly disables cookies in Safari.

Google argued that the group does not have a case against the search company because nobody suffered financial harm due to Google's actions, but the court dismissed the argument, saying that the group's concern is not financial in nature.

"These claims raise serious issues which merit a trial," said the court in its ruling obtained by the BBC. "They concern what is alleged to have been the secret and blanket tracking and collation of information, often of an extremely private nature ... about and associated with the claimants' Internet use, and the subsequent use of the information for about nine months. This case relates to the anxiety and distress this intrusion upon autonomy has caused."

Google said it was "disappointed with the court's decision," but the three claimants are rejoicing over the landmark decision that has set the precedent for future cases that UK citizens might decide to file against U.S.-based companies doing business in Europe.

Marc Bradshaw of the Google Action Group, a non-profit organization whose objective is to manage consumer complaints against Google, calls the court ruling "a David and Goliath victory."

"The Court of Appeal has ensured Google cannot use its vast resources to evade English justice," Bradshaw stated. "Ordinary computer users like me will now have the right to hold this giant to account before the courts for its unacceptable, immoral and unjust actions."

This is not the first time a complaint has been raised against Google for installing illegal tracking codes in Safari. In 2012, Google was forced to pay a $22.5 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after the consumer protection body found out that Google circumvented Apple's default tracking setting in Safari to place tracking cookies even though Google promised users that they will be automatically opted out of tracking. The amount paid by Google was the biggest penalty imposed by the FTC at the time.

Photo: John Allan | Geograph

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