Austrian privacy campaigner files 'class action' suit against Facebook over privacy policy

People can join the suit and claim €500 in damages, campaign group Europe-v-Facebook said

Privacy campaign group Europe-v-Facebook is inviting Facebook users outside the U.S. and Canada to join a lawsuit against the company, which it alleges violates privacy laws.

Europe-v-Facebook's front man Max Schrems filed suit with the commercial court in Vienna, Austria, where he lives, the group said Friday on a website devoted to the case, fbclaim.com.

Schrems sued Facebook Ireland, which is responsible for processing the data of users outside the U.S. and Canada. Under EU law, consumers can always sue businesses at the relevant court of their home country. Moreover, the Austrian courts have reasonable fees compared to other countries, the group explained.

The suit accuses Facebook of "basic or obvious violations of the law," the group said. The alleged violations include the company's privacy policy; its alleged participation in the Prism data collection program run by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA); its graph search; its tracking of users on third party websites; the use of "big data" systems that spy on users, and the company's non-compliance with data access requests, the group said.

Austrian law doesn't allow for the kind of class action lawsuit seen in the U.S., where it is possible for a group of people to collectively sue a company. However, it does allow interested parties to assign their claims to a single person, who can then sue on their behalf and redistribute any damages awarded, according to Europe-v-Facebook.

"Because it took a lot of effort to put this lawsuit together and there are many other people in the same position, it made sense to also invite other users to join the lawsuit," the group said.

People who want to join the suit can fill in a form on fbclaim.com.

Schrems is suing Facebook for €500 (US$670) in damages and unjust enrichment, and the group said on Twitter that every individual claim added to the suit will also be set to €500. "This is intentionally low because our main aim is to enforce our fundamental rights," the group said. In similar cases courts have awarded higher amounts, ranging from €750 for minor violations up to a €2,000 in other cases, it said.

Closely related claims can be added to the original claim up until the last day of the hearing under Austrian procedural law, the group said.

There is no direct risk for participants because all the legal risks are with Schrems, who is funded by Roland ProzessFinanz, a German legal financing provider, the group said. Roland will be responsible for any legal fees and if the group wins will get 20 percent of the awarded amount, after costs, it added.

"Of course Facebook could theoretically try to take other actions against users or participants. Facebook could e.g. delete accounts of participants. Such actions are however very unlikely, would itself be hardly legal and very likely a huge PR disaster," the group said.

Facebook declined to comment on the suit.

Europe-v-Facebook has been campaigning against Facebook over privacy and data protection issues for years.

It filed complaints with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) which led to an audit of Facebook's privacy practices. As a result, the DPC recommended further actions and Facebook made a series of commitments to improve its privacy practices in the EU. 

More recently, the group filed a complaint with the DPC over Facebook's alleged involvement in the Prism program under which the NSA could spy on European Facebook users' data because personal data is exchanged between the EU and the U.S. The DPC said this exchange is legal. But Europe-v-Facebook asked the Irish High Court to review and reverse that decision. That court referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in June.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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