To date, around 25,000 individuals have signed up to privacy advocate Max Schrem’s Facebook complaint stating that they want to join in his actions. However, the ultimate decision on whether or not the case will be heard on an individual basis or as a single class action lawsuit, will be made by Austria’s Supreme Court.
Max Schrems is an Austrian citizen. In July 2014, he filed a lawsuit against Facebook Ireland, stating that the way the social media network uses user data is in violation of European privacy laws. An appeal to Austria’s Supreme Court was made by both Facebook and Schrems after a decision was issued by the Vienna Court of Appeal last month. The Vienna Court of Appeal had decided that Schrems was correct in 20 out of the 22 different claims he made. They also stated that the decision on whether or not a class action lawsuit would be possible or not would have to be made by the Supreme Court.
The plaintiff has now appealed to the Austrian Supreme Court claiming that the “class action” is admissible in this situation. Facebook has to the contrary filed an appeal claiming that the case should not be heard in the court.
It is expected that the Austrian Supreme Court will make a decision on this case in the beginning of 2016. In Schrems’ complaint, he is looking for 500 euros, which is the equivalent of around $531, in damages for each individual complainant.
Is Class Action Reasonable and Legal?
Both Schrems and Facebook are not commenting on the decision by the Vienna Court of Appeal, nor on the decision to take it to Austria’s Supreme Court. However, Schrems has released a statement in which he has said that he believes he has EU law on his side and that this law supports him in requesting a class action lawsuit, or a model case lawsuit.
It would not make a lot of sense for the court or the parties before it to file these claims as thousands of individual lawsuits – which we can still do if a ‘class action’ is not allowed. We therefore think that the ‘class action’ is not only legal but also the only reasonable way to deal with thousands of identical privacy violations by Facebook.
Max Schrems is a law student himself, so he has an above average understanding of legal matters. Interestingly, it was as a student that he heard Ed Palmieri, Facebook’s privacy lawyer, speak in 2011 and this inspired him to take on the case. At the time, Schrems was studying in our country and this enabled him to see the differences between US and EU laws in terms of how user data is being handled. He felt that the procedures Facebook uses are not compliant with the data protection service laws and relevant products as set by the European Union.
A New Legal Precedent
Facebook is under a lot of attack from privacy complaints at present. In October, the European Union’s Court of Justice stated that an existing EU-US agreement on the ways American companies handle the personal data of EU citizens was invalid. This created a huge boost for those wanting to file a complaint against Facebook. This is known as the overturning of the Safe Harbor agreement.
The European Court of Justice has just ruled that the transatlantic Safe Harbour agreement, which lets American companies use a single standard for consumer privacy and data storage in both the US and Europe, is invalid.
This ruling came as a result of the Edward Snowden revelations and created disarray among social media networks, and also other conglomerates, including Google. The Safe Harbor agreement had been in effect since 2000 and it essentially meant that companies in this country could self-certify whether or not they would be fully compliant with European privacy standards.
Facebook’s European headquarters are in Ireland. Schrems’ initial complaint, therefore, was lodged in Ireland. However, the Irish commissioner rejected the complaint made against the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. It was at this point that Schrem took matters further, which eventually led to the ruling that the Safe Harbor agreement was invalid. Schrems had to fight hard for this, taking his case from the Irish Data Protection Commissioner to the High Court in Dublin and, eventually, the European Court of Justice, where the decision was made.
The ruling today declared “the national security, public interest and law enforcement requirements of the United States prevail over the Safe Harbour scheme, so that United States undertakings are bound to disregard, without limitation, the protective rules laid down by that scheme where they conflict with such requirements.”
Essentially, the European Court of Justice felt that interference was enabled through the Safe Harbor scheme, by United States public authorities. This goes against the fundamental rights of the individual as set by the European Union. This was a landslide ruling that sent huge shock waves through the world.
Schrems is being represented by the CEO of Roland ProzessFinanz, Arndt Eversberg, who has made a statement on the case.
If the Austrian Supreme Court or the European Court of Justice allows the lawsuit, Mr. Schrems may write a bit of legal history in the privacy field for the second time – after the ‘Safe Harbor’ decision.
Schrems is clearly building a name for himself. Facebook, meanwhile, is fighting back tooth and nail. Considering that some 25,000 people have already signed up to be part of the class action lawsuit, if it is allowed, the potential that Facebook would have to pay incredibly high amounts of money in damages is all too real. There is also a significant worry that, if the courts decide that it can indeed be trialed as a class action lawsuit, even more people will come forward.
It is not clear whether any of the above has had any direct consequences in our country. However, here, Facebook appears to not be worried at all. At present, they simply want the case to be deemed not a class action, which they believe they will be able to do.