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25,000 pissed off Facebook users head for the courts in Europe

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 5, 2014
Austrian law student Max Schrems has seen a swell of support for a fresh legal campaign to take class action against the world's largest social network over privacy complaints

Earlier this week I decided that I was going to take a break from Facebook, having come to the conclusion that it has become an annoying pastime, rather

than something that should be fun and entertaining. I found I was enjoying my time on there less and less. So, whilst feeling rather smug with myself for not having logged on for a couple of days (my willpower is incredible, I know), I was interested to see that I'm not the only one who is taking an issue with Facebook this week – as 25,000 users have just signed up to take class action against the social network.

Yup, law student Max Schrems and his campaign group Europe-v-Facebook have come up with a plan to file an extensive civil suit in Vienna against the Irish subsidiary of Facebook, which could see the social network have to defend itself against privacy claims of not operating properly under European data protection laws.

Unlike a class action in the US, although Schrems invited users to come forward and sign up for the suit, he will solely represent them on their behalf. Users were asked on Friday to join the suit via a website (which, ironically requires you to log-in via Facebook) and since then thousands upon thousands of pissed off Facebook-ers have signed up. Because the lawsuit is targeting Facebook Ireland, which deals with all users outside of the USA and Canada, only users outside of North America have been able to participate.

However, earlier today Schrems put out a warning when the sign-ups hit 20,000 that he would have to cap the suit at 25,000 participants for the time being in order to process all the claimants. However, users can still sign up their interest on the website and may be considered at a later date if the suit expands.

So what is Schrems taking issue with? He and his campaign group have been battling with Facebook in Ireland for years, over issues such as the firm's facial recognition software and Facebook's involvement with the NSA, but they now feel that not enough has been done by the Irish data protection regulator to protect people's privacy interests and so they are taking their case elsewhere.

Schrems said the following in a statement:

In the beginning we made great progress in Ireland. As a result of our complaints, Facebook had to delete data and deactivate its facial recognition all over the world. However, over time it became clear that the Irish authorities had no interest in enforcing substantial changes.

Many voices in Ireland are saying that this is due to political pressure not to drive away the IT industry, which is very important in Ireland. We shouldn’t have that problem in Austria. We are therefore transferring the focus of our activities here.

We love to complain constantly about data protection problems in Europe, now it’s also time for us to enforce our fundamental rights. Within the framework of this class action individuals can also make a contribution to this effort

He also sent some tweets to express his support for those that have decided to back him:

Basically, there's a whole host of privacy and data protection issues that have been rumbling away for months that Schrems wants to wrap up into a bundle for the civil action. These include (in his words, not mine):

  • Data use policy which is invalid under EU law
  • The absence of effective consent to many types of data use
  • Support of the NSA’s ‘PRISM’ surveillance programme
  • Tracking of Internet users on external websites (e.g. through ‘Like buttons’)
  • Monitoring and analysis of users through ‘big data’ systems
  • Unlawful introduction of ‘Graph Search’
  • Unauthorised passing on of user data to external applications

Invasion of privacy warning.
And what will those who participate get out of this? Probably not that much. Schrems is currently suing for €500 in damages and unjust enrichment, but after legal fees and the rest, the amount awarded to each person involved will probably be nominal. Equally, the amount Facebook may have to pay out (if the suit sticks to 25,000 people) could reach €12.5 million. Not something to be sniffed at, but given Facebook's latest results, not something that is likely to cause too much lasting damage either.

However, if the suit is successful, this will have wider implications for Facebook's activity in Europe and how it adheres to European data protection laws. If an Austrian court rules against it, Facebook will likely have to reconsider how it operates and take action to prove that it is sticking to the rules. If 25,000 people can sign up in four days, there's probably plenty more where they came from.

I doubt very much that Facebook wants a privacy war on its hands with its users, so the sensible thing to do would be to create an open dialogue with Schrems and his team to discuss what actions could be taken to please both parties. Whether or not this happens, only time will tell...

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