Europe’s highest court sides with Facebook in privacy class-action lawsuit
Facebook won a reprieve Thursday after Europe’s highest court ruled that an Austrian privacy campaigner could not bring a class-action lawsuit involving more than 25,000 Facebook users worldwide against the social networking giant.
The decision by the European Court of Justice, though, did not fully favor the U.S. tech company, with the Luxembourg-based court also saying that Max Schrems, the Austrian who brought the case and has been behind several other legal disputes against Facebook, has the right to personally sue the company for the alleged misuse of his personal data.
Schrems “cannot benefit from the consumer forum for the purposes of a collective action,” the judges said in a statement Thursday. But he “may bring an individual action in Austria against Facebook Ireland.”
The verdict comes as the social network faces a series of ongoing legal challenges around the globe, as courts, policymakers and some of the company’s 2 billion users worldwide raise concerns about Facebook’s role in spreading digital misinformation globally, as well as how it handles individuals’ personal data.
The social network also is not yet out of the woods when it comes to legal cases to be heard by Europe’s highest court. Later this year, Facebook is expected to return to Luxembourg for hearings linked to an Irish lawsuit, which also involves Schrems, over whether European data can legally be transferred to the United States.
Facebook welcomed the court’s decision Thursday, saying that the judgment supported previous rulings in Austria’s domestic courts.
“We were pleased to have been able to present our case to the European Court of Justice and now look forward to resolving this matter,” said Sally Aldous, a Facebook spokesperson.
The European Court of Justice added, though, that Schrems could continue with his own case against Facebook in Austrian courts as he met the definition of being a “consumer” under European law, even though he had commercial operations linked to privacy cases.
“We can finally go ahead with the case,” Schrems said. “Facebook will now have to explain to a neutral court whether its business model is in line with stringent European privacy laws.”
Schrems first filed the lawsuit in 2014 alleging that the company violated Europeans’ privacy rights, which are some of the strongest in the world.
Those allegations include revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, who claimed American government agencies illegally mined the digital information of Facebook users without their consent. The company denies any wrongdoing.
The European judges said EU law did not allow Schrems to bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of others because each individual, which had a specific contract with Facebook, must file a separate legal case.
Despite the partial victory Thursday, Facebook still faces pressure over how it handles Europeans’ personal data ahead of changes to the region’s privacy standards, which take effect in late May. That revamp includes potential fines of up to €20 millionor 4 percent of a company’s global revenue, whichever is greater, if it is found to have mishandled Europeans’ digital information.
Earlier this week, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, announced the company would give users greater control over their data ahead of the overhaul in Europe’s data protection rules, though she gave few details on what such changes would include.