Europe vs. Facebook: Austrian activist wins another legal battle over data protection

© Dado Ruvic
An Austrian privacy activist has won his next legal battle against so-called “model contract clauses,” used by thousands of multinational companies, including Facebook and Amazon, to legally transfer Europeans’ personal data to the US.

Max Schrems, the 28-year-old data privacy activist from Austria, has become well-known because of his long-lasting court battle against “Safe Harbor,” a personal data transfer deal sealed between the US, the EU and Switzerland. It allowed transnational companies like Facebook, Google or Amazon to collect and analyze private data on the US premises.

In October last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled against the “Safe Harbor” following Schrems’ complaint that he filed in 2013. Appealing to the top EU court, Schrems, then a law student, argued that the US legislation did not ensure enough protection against surveillance on data sent via Facebook to the United States.

Following the ruling, thousands of transnational companies have turned to the so-called “model contract clauses” to allow them to transfer personal data – whether pay slips or pictures – outside the EU, without violating the bloc’s strict data protection rules.

But their legality will soon be contested after the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) in Ireland, where Facebook is based.

“We yesterday informed Mr Schrems and Facebook of our intention to seek declaratory relief in the Irish High Court and a referral to the CJEU to determine the legal status of data transfers under Standard Contractual Clauses,” the office of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner said in a statement on Wednesday.

The authority to decide whether the “model contracts” are lawful has now been transferred to the Court of Justice of the European Union, the same entity that ruled against the previously-used “Safe Harbor.”

If the top EU’s court rules on the “model contract clauses” the same way as they did on “Safe Harbor,” it would potentially have an enormous impact on the world’s biggest companies.

“Under current CJEU case law, it is highly unlikely that Facebook Ireland could continue sharing data with the US authorities,” Schrems said in a statement. 

“This is a very serious issue for the US tech industry and EU-US data flows. I see no way that the CJEU can say that model contracts are valid if they killed ‘Safe Harbor’ based on the existence of these US surveillance laws.

“All data protection lawyers knew that model contracts were a shaky thing, but it was so far the easiest and quickest solution they came up with.”

American technology giants keep insisting that transferring private data across the Atlantic is a quicker and more cost-efficient option than launching an entirely independent operation within the EU. Schrems was among the ones who questioned justifications used by Facebook to transfer Europeans’ data to the US, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass data snooping by US intelligence agencies.