Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Austrian court orders Facebook to respond to privacy suit claims

Out-Law News | 22 Aug 2014 | 4:38 pm | 2 min. read

The Vienna Regional Court has given Facebook four weeks to respond to claims that users’ data has been secretly accessed as part of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism surveillance programme, the group taking the action has said.

The court’s ruling relates to a suit filed by the ‘Europe-v-Facebook’ group on behalf of users outside the US and Canada.

Austrian student Max Schrems, who is part of the campaign group, brought the case after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden claimed that the NSA was secretly accessing users' private data in several internet firms, including Facebook. The group claims the way Facebook processes its users' information lacks transparency and user control, alleging this makes it "illegal under EU law".

In a statement posted online on 21 August, the group said Facebook Ireland has now been ordered to submit a counterstatement to the claims within four weeks. According to the group, Facebook might be able to request an extension of an additional four weeks. However, the court could issue a judgement based on the group’s case if the company fails to respond, the group said.

According to the group, more than 25,000 Facebook users from outside the US and Canada have now assigned their claims to join the class action. An additional 35,000 users are said to have registered with the group’s ‘class action’ web site, to assign their claims.

In a statement posted on the class action web site, the group said the action had been filed in Austria because the main plaintiff of the existing lawsuit, Schrems, lives in Vienna. “For legal reasons it is necessary to assign all claims to one person who pursues the claims on behalf of everyone else. If the lawsuit is successful the awards will be redistributed among all class members.”

The group said of the legal action: “The main point is that the major internet companies do not respect our fundamental rights to privacy and data protection. Facebook is only one example of many, but one has to start somewhere. Outside of the US and Canada, Facebook is provided by Facebook Ireland Ltd. This company has its headquarters in Dublin, thus falls under EU law, and is now being sued.”

In a personal response to “outrageous” media reports about the Prism claims released in 2013, Facebook chairman and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said: “Facebook is not and has never been part of any programme to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk... and if we did, we would fight it aggressively.”

Zuckerberg said: “When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if it is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure. We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programmes aimed at keeping the public safe. It’s the only way to protect everyone’s civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term.”