Setback For European Facebook Privacy Class Action, As Austrian Court Rules Lawsuit Inadmissible

An ongoing Facebook class action suit in Europe over alleged privacy violations took a significant step back today. A regional court in Austria, where the suit was originally filed, ruled the it inadmissible, with the court saying it has “no jurisdiction” over the matter. The case, originally filed in August 2014 by Europe v Facebook, currently has 25,000 claimants signed up, with another 60,000 on a waiting list, making it potentially the largest privacy class action in Europe — if it ever gets heard in court, that is.

The group now hopes to appeal and send the case to a higher court. “We expected a number of possible outcomes, but this finding by the court is really very strange,” said Dr. Wolfram Proksch, the lawyer representing the claimant, in a statement. “Unfortunately, it seems like the court wanted to forward this hot potato to the higher courts.”

Facebook is taking this as a clear win, however.

“This litigation was unnecessary and we’re pleased that the court has roundly rejected these claims,” a spokesperson said. “We remain happy to work with our regulator, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, to address any questions about our commitment to protecting people’s information.”

Max Schrems, the main claimant in the case, says that he and the rest of the legal team — the class action is being financed by Roland Prozessfinanz AG — intend to appeal to send the case to a higher court.

“The appeal will be filed within two weeks,” Schrems told TechCrunch in an email. “I did not anticipate this form of arguments, as they are very strange, but I expected that this issue will go up the courts anyways.”

Schrems, himself a law student, and his Europe v Facebook group have been going after the social network over privacy issues for years now, with varying amounts of success.

This class action focuses around a list of areas where Schrems and his team believe Facebook has been violating EU data protection laws. As detailed by the group, they include “voided privacy policies; illegal collection and transfer of data; spying on the browsing behavior of users; [and] the participation in the NSA spy program PRISM.”

According to the group, the court rejected the case for a couple of reasons: the first is that it determined that the case would need to be filed against Facebook in Dublin, site of its European and global headquarters that oversees all users outside of the U.S. and Canada (working out to just over 82 percent of all of Facebook’s user base), since that it had no jurisdiction over the place where alleged violations occurred.

It also raised questions about Schrems’ own status as a private individual — the basis of a class action suit — considering his very vocal activism and the group that he runs.

Facebook v Europe is setting damages at €500 per user claim. Were the case to go ahead in any court, Facebook could potentially be required to pay out $16,577,438, and considerably more if the suit is expanded to include people on the waiting list. As we’ve pointed out before, this is a relatively small sum for Facebook to pay, but the damage to Facebook’s image would be far greater.

It will be interesting to see how and if any courts ultimately decide to hear out this case. More generally, we have seen a heightened awareness and sensitivity to online privacy and data protection in Europe, with the top rights body in the region strongly rejecting the idea of mass surveillance; and courts enforcing delisting on search engines when individuals request it (the so-called “right to be forgotten” rule). While this class action suit may not be admissible and potentially rejected by the courts, it seems to be striking a nerve with many, as evidenced by the number of people who have tried to join the case.

The next phase of the case will be heard at the Higher Regional Court (“Oberlandesgericht”) and if that proves unsuccessful can be appealed at the Austrian Supreme Court (“Oberster Gerichtshof”).

You can also still register your interest to join the suit here.

The original complaint (in English) and court submission (in German) embedded below.