Facebook faces class action privacy suit in Austria, with most of the world invited to join in

Max Schrems, Europe v Facebook

Serial anti-Facebook litigant Max Schrems, an Austrian law student, has branched out from his usual strategy of tackling the data-munching social network in Ireland, home of Facebook’s international operations. On Friday, he announced a class action lawsuit in his home country, too — and anyone outside the U.S. and Canada can take part.

So far, Schrems and his “Europe v Facebook” group have been remarkably successful in their quest to force Facebook to comply with European data protection law. They’ve managed to get Facebook to cough up more user data when the relevant users ask, they hobbled some of the firm’s facial recognition functionality, and they’re the reason why Europe’s highest court is now having to consider the legality of the NSA’s PRISM program and its effect on the U.S.-European Safe Harbor agreement.

The lawsuit revealed on Friday in Vienna will take on many aspects of Facebook’s behavior, including its reported participation in the PRISM program, its privacy policy, the fact that it tracks anyone who visits a web page with a “like” button on it, the “absence of effective consent to many types of data use” and non-compliance with data access requests.

The suit also covers the “unlawful introduction” of the arguably creepy Graph Search feature, the passing of user information to third-party applications, and the “monitoring of users by means of Big Data analytics.”

“Political pressure” in Ireland

As he has repeatedly done, Schrems is complaining that the Irish data protection commissioner hasn’t properly cracked down on the social network. All of Facebook’s international operations outside of North America run out of Ireland – which is why anyone who’s not from Canada or the U.S. (and who isn’t underage) is being invited to join the class action.

In a statement, Schrems said:

“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. The proceedings will soon reach the end of their third year and we are still being promised a decision ‘in the near future’. 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.”

Under EU law, a verdict by the Commercial Court in Vienna will apply to Facebook’s Irish headquarters as well.

Aiming low

Joining the suit is free – it’s being bankrolled by German litigation funder Roland ProzessFinanz, which will get a fifth of the payout if it’s successful. According to the FAQs, Austria doesn’t allow U.S.-style class actions as such, but there is precedent for getting a group of people to assign their claims to one person who then sues on their behalf. In this case, that person is Schrems.

“We are suing Facebook for €500 [$669] in damages and unjust enrichment,” the FAQs read, referring to the amount sought per individual claim. “This is intentionally low because our main aim is to enforce our fundamental rights. In similar cases courts have always awarded higher amounts (at least €750 for minor violations, up to a couple of €1,000 in other cases).”

Ironically but necessarily, of course, those wishing to sign up for the suit need to use the Facebook login button to do so. Those who have already deactivated their Facebook accounts in disgust at the trampling of their rights et cetera will need to fill out a separate form or temporarily reactivate their accounts.

I’ve asked Facebook for comment, and will add it if and when it arrives.

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