Is Aus­tria’s Max Schrems a night­mare for Amer­ica’s high-tech cor­po­ra­tions?


Few in Amer­ica’s Sil­i­con Val­ley could have pre­dicted that a young Aus­trian law grad­u­ate who spent a se­mes­ter study­ing there would one day be­come high-tech com­pa­nies’ worst night­mare.

Yet that’s ex­actly what Max Schrems achieved on Tues­day when the Euro­pean Union’s top court ruled in his fa­vor, declar­ing that a key transat­lantic data deal re­lied on by gi­ant cor­po­ra­tions such as Face­book was in­valid in the light of wide­spread spy­ing re­vealed by the Ed­ward Snow­den scan­dal.

The ver­dict strikes down the so­called Safe Har­bor pact signed be­tween the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and the United States in 2000, al­low­ing Amer­i­can com­pa­nies to trans­fer data from the EU to the U.S. as long as they en­sured ad­e­quate lev­els of pro­tec­tion.

But for Schrems, who turns 28 this month, the agree­ment failed to live up to its prom­ise in the wake of de­tails leaked by for­mer U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) con­trac­tor Snow­den.

Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can whistle­blower, the NSA had ac­cess to users’ data on Face­book and other U.S. tech com­pa­nies. Although the firms have de­nied the al­le­ga­tions, the scan­dal has nev­er­the­less opened a can of worms and helped pave the way for Schrems’ le­gal vic­tory.

“Yay!” he de­clared in a ju­bi­lant tweet just min­utes af­ter the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice an­nounced its de­ci­sion.

In a later state­ment, the out­spo­ken ac­tivist de­scribed the rul­ing as a po­ten­tial “mile­stone” for online pri­vacy. “This judg­ment draws a clear line. clar­i­fies that mass sur­veil­lance

It vi­o­lates our fun­da­men­tal rights ... (It) makes it clear that U.S. busi­nesses can­not sim­ply aid U.S. es­pi­onage ef­forts in vi­o­la­tion of Euro­pean fun­da­men­tal rights,” he said.

The ver­dict even prompted Snow­den to con­grat­u­late Schrems on Twit­ter. “You’ve changed the world for the bet­ter,” wrote the whistle­blower, who cur­rently lives in ex­ile in Rus­sia.

‘Wild West’ Laws

In the lead-up to the de­ci­sion, Schrems looked re­laxed, flash­ing his trade­mark grin as he leaned against a row of seats in­side the court room, hands in his jeans pock­ets.

The Ph.D. stu­dent from Vi­enna has grown ac­cus­tomed to jour­nal­ists’ ques­tions since he be­gan his fight against Face­book four years ago, af­ter spend­ing a se­mes­ter at Santa Clara Univer­sity in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Schrems said he had been star­tled by Amer­i­can com­pa­nies’ lax at­ti­tude to­ward Euro­pean pri­vacy laws.

“The gen­eral ap­proach in Sil­i­con Val­ley is that you can do any­thing you want in Europe” with­out fac­ing ma­jor con­se­quences, Schrems told AFP in an ear­lier in­ter­view.

“We have pri­vacy laws here in Europe but we are not en­forc­ing (them). The core is­sue is: do online com­pa­nies have to stick to the rules or do they live some­where in the Wild West where they can do what­ever they want to do?”

Fol­low­ing his re­turn to Aus­tria, he re­quested Face­book pro­vide him with a record of the per­sonal data it held on him.

Schrems was shocked when he re­ceived no less than 1,222 pages of in­for­ma­tion.

These in­cluded photos, mes­sages and post­ings on his Face­book page dat­ing back years — some of which he thought he had deleted — the times he had clicked “like” on an item, and “pokes” of fel­low users. “When you delete some­thing from Face­book, all you are do­ing is hid­ing it from your­self,” he said.

Bat­tle Goes On

Be­liev­ing that Face­book was con­tra­ven­ing EU law, he filed 22 com­plaints with Ire­land’s Data Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sioner (DPC) in Dublin, where Face­book has its Euro­pean head­quar­ters.

When the DPC re­jected the case on the ba­sis of the Safe Har­bor agree­ment, Schrems re­mained un­de­terred and took his cause all the way to the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice.

De­spite Tues­day’s win, the David ver­sus Go­liath bat­tle is far from over for the Aus­trian who is also try­ing to launch a class ac­tion in Aus­tria against Face­book for al­leged pri­vacy breaches.

He is cur­rently ap­peal­ing a de­ci­sion by a Vi­en­nese judge to re­ject the suit in July on the ba­sis that the court lacked ju­ris­dic­tion to de­cide the mat­ter.

Some 25,000 peo­ple from around the world have signed up to the ac­tion, with each plain­tiff claim­ing a sym­bolic sum of 500 eu­ros (US$540) in dam­ages.

Face­book, which de­nies the al­leged breaches, has ac­cused Schrems of launch­ing the law­suit for fi­nan­cial rea­sons rather than for his rights as a con­sumer — a claim laughed off by the ac­tivist’s lawyer, Wol­fram Proksch: “He lives for, but not off the case.”

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