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Why Alexander Hanff is suing Google

Interview Privacy advocate goes to court over policy changes
Thu Mar 01 2012, 16:38
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PRIVACY ADVOCATE Alexander Hanff has spoken with The INQUIRER about his decision to sue Google and why he thinks that his complaint seeking £400 compensation is worth it.

Hanff announced yesterday that he is taking to Google to court over its privacy policy changes that he did not agree to but is compelled to suffer. He is arguing for the money he spent on his Android handset and said that he decided to go to court after discussion with his peers.

"I had lengthy discussions with other advocates and experts a month ago about possible actions that could be taken in light of Google's announcement that they were changing their privacy policies. The route which I felt stood the most chance of success was to issue a claim in the courts under consumer law with regards to Android devices, since they have a real cost associated to them and a contract," he said.

"The point of using the Small Claims Court was to give other members of the public a very low risk and low cost method of protecting their fundamental rights."

Hanff said that if other Google users follow his lead then they too should follow the same route. "The cost of filing in Small Claims Court is very low and the chance of having costs awarded against you should you lose are very slim, so from a risk mitigation perspective it is the safest route for consumers to take," he added. "The last thing I wanted to do was put people at risk of huge costs so I would advise the public to use the small claims route if they want to take action against Google on this issue."

Hanff has not spoken with Google, but said he had spoken with the UK privacy authority, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) about the firm in the past, and thought that taking that same route again would have lead to a dead end.

"I haven't contacted Google at all, I have closely followed the regulatory bodies who have communicated with Google and it quickly became clear that if Google were [sic] not willing to submit to regulatory demands they certainly wouldn't be swayed by me," he said.

"On the ICO, ideally I would have liked to have been able to make a complaint to ICO and have them deal with the issue, but in 2010 a senior member of ICO staff informed me that Christopher Graham had announced to his staff that he didn't want a war with Google; this was after I had filed complaints to ICO regarding the Google WiFi scandal. As such I felt that going to ICO with this issue would fail to yield any results or action [based on the ICO's history]."

Hanff is very critical of the ICO, which two years ago was weak in its response to concerns about Google's habit of snooping WiFi connections while building up Streetview maps, and said that the organisation is not strong enough to handle its role.

"I am very critical of ICO and yes I would say they are letting the public down, in fact I would say they are doing worse than that. Every time ICO refuse to take action against a large corporation they are effectively placing those corporations above the law, which renders privacy regulations completely impotent and only serves to dilute our fundamental right to privacy," he added.

"So they are not just letting the public down, they are actively destroying the rights of the public by failing to act on these cases. I applaud CNILs work [the French authority that has questioned the changes] on this current issue and previous issues relating to privacy, I only wish our own regulator had as strong a resolve."

Hanff does not expect an easy route to satisfaction, and is ready and willing to put up a fight. "I expect Google will offer a defence. I certainly don't have any plans to accept an out of court settlement from Google unless that settlement can be made public and includes an admission from Google that the changes are prejudicial to privacy," he added.

"So yes, I am expecting a fight but it is a fight I am more than prepared to undertake. My work is very important to me, I have dedicated my life to it and I cannot do that work effectively if I am not willing to fight when the need arises." µ


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