Cllr Rhodri Oliver is a Breckland District councillor and works as a tax accountant.
Last Monday, a class action suit against Google in the High Court brought by a former director of Which? was blocked in the High Court. The claim concerned Google’s alleged gathering of millions of people’s data by bypassing default privacy settings on iPhones and tracking their online behaviour on the Safari browser. It sought compensation for affected users of up to £750 each, with the potential bill to Google being approximately £3.3 billion.
However, Mr Justice Warby, refused the claim leave to proceed on the grounds that the claimant had not proved that users in the UK had suffered ‘damage’; and because it would be difficult to reliably calculate the number of affected iPhone users.
Now of course this view could be seen as very reasonable; many of the iPhone users would never have known that their data was allegedly being pilfered by Google (this was apparently only spotted by a PhD researcher). Therefore, the argument runs, how could they have suffered damage and, even if they had, how would they prove how much?
However, this approach is wrong-headed. Suppose I sneak into your house and take your computer – your loss, should you pursue me in a civil court, is the value of your computer and the reasonably foreseeable losses that you suffered from not having it. Easy.
Now let’s say I sneak into your house and, rather than stealing your computer, copy everything on it and sell that data to third parties to target adverts at you. Your loss? It looks like nothing – particularly if you never knew it had happened (all the stress and worry of having data stolen avoided). But I have taken something of yours and made money from it without your permission.
Why should such unjust enrichment from the use of your data be acceptable? And can it be right that you have no claim? Is a single person’s data really not important? It clearly has a value – or else it would not have been taken.
The Conservative Party should be at the forefront of understanding data and its implications for voters, especially in a world that is seeing a small number of large companies controlling and collecting vast banks of our data. If people have their data copied, tracked or taken unlawfully, then they should be compensated, regardless of whether they can prove ‘damage’. Alternatively, the state could fine those who took the data. And if the person who took the data makes a profit from using it, then they should pay – see the payment as compensation for lending the data or as a licensing charge for its use.
All this would need a change in the law and represent a step towards defining a relationship between the state, the individual and the increasingly important and powerful technology corporates.
The Conservatives have a mixed reputation in terms of how technologically savvy they are and, with personnel data being 21st century gold, its treatment is a profoundly important political issue. In the coming years, companies will grow to know so much about each of us they will be able to gently nudge our behaviours – which will be worth countless billions of pounds. Following the introduction of the somewhat cumbersome Data Protection Act 2018, we need policies which show how we can make sure the appropriate balance of power between individuals and large tech companies can be maintained.