The Supreme Court has blocked a legal effort to sue Google on behalf of iPhone owners, which had said individuals could be entitled to £750 each.

Lord Leggatt overturned a 2019 Court of Appeal decision that allowed the campaign group Google You Owe Us to claim damages against the search giant for tracking 4m iPhone users without their permission.

The group, represented by former Which? director Richard Lloyd, claimed that Google had “illegally misused the data of millions of iPhone users” who owned the Apple device in 2011 and 2012. But on Wednesday the court said the case could not show that each iPhone owner had suffered harm.

Mr Lloyd had sought to bring a representative case, meaning the estimated 4.4m individuals involved would not have to opt in, therefore claiming damages on behalf of the group as a whole. Class actions in which claimants do not have to opt in are common in the United States, but rare in the UK due to differences in the law. 

A £750 payout would have cost Google more than £3bn. The company had dismissed the action in the High Court in 2018 but the Court of Appeal had overturned the ruling in 2019, leading Google to take it to the Supreme Court.

In 2011 and 2012, Google used a “workaround” to Apple privacy protections designed to stop advertisers from tracking users across the web. 

Lord Leggatt said Mr Lloyd could not bring a representative case, in which all participants have suffered equivalent damage, because the claimants could not show that each of the 4.4m iPhone users had suffered an equal amount of damage.

“It would… be necessary to consider matters such as, over what period of time did Google track the individual’s internet browsing history, what quantity of data was unlawfully processed, was any of the information unlawfully processed of a sensitive or private nature, what use did Google make of the information, and what commercial benefits if any did Google obtain from such use?” he said.

“In the absence of any evidence about any of these matters, an individual is not entitled to recover compensation.

"The attempt to recover compensation without proving any facts particular to any individual iPhone user, and in particular without alleging or proving that Google’s alleged unlawful conduct caused any financial damage or mental distress to any such individual is therefore unsustainable.”

Following the decision, Mr Lloyd said: “We are bitterly disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other Big Tech firms who break the law. They have overturned a very clear ruling by senior, expert judges in the Court of Appeal.

“If there are few consequences for abusing our personal data then there is little incentive for companies like Google to protect consumers.”