Europe Versus Facebook: The Max Schrems Case

As Facebook becomes more Influential and monopolistic as a multipurpose social networking platform, more European skeptics bring attention to the organization.

One of them is Max Schrems, an Austrian right-to-privacy activist. In 2014, Schrems started his campaign aimed at so-called Safe Harbour agreement, a framework established in 2000 to provide a single standard for US-EU data transfers. Schrems argued that Facebook could not provide an adequate level of protection of the user’s personal data. He used the revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden as his primary argument, stating that the social network aided the NSA in collecting the users’ (including European ones) personal data.

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Max Schrems. Image courtesy of Flickr user networkcultures

Since Facebook’s European headquarters are located in Ireland, Schrems first brought the case to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, but the case was rejected due to the legal status of the agreement. Schrems then appealed the decision and the case was brought to the European Court of Justice. The ECJ eventually “declared that the same protections laws are not offered in the US,” and that the Schrems case should be carefully examined and further actions should be taken. Yves Bot, the advocate general at the ECJ became the second main catalyst for the revision of the Safe Harbour agreement. He concluded that the agreement was invalid because of U.S. surveillance. “Interference with fundamental rights is contrary to the principle of proportionality, in particular because the surveillance carried out by the United States intelligence services is mass, indiscriminate surveillance,” he added.

Although the Safe Harbour agreement is not the only legal framework for transferring the data between the US and Europe, this decision can affect more that 4,500 international companies, from small firms to giant enterprises such as Google, Apple and Microsoft. I believe Mr. Bot should first of all recognize his responsibility before both the US and the European business people. Without no doubts, the NSA spying is the issue should be dealt with, but it is also important to analyze how the economic stability of the countries involved in the agreement may be affected after the conditions are changed. Earlier this year, during the active debates about the future of the European data privacy framework, some rather obvious flaws were defined. For instance, the new regulations can be especially damaging for companies who process data such as cloud storage providers. According to the Guardian’s article, “Amazon and IBM have warned that it could kill off Europe’s cloud computing industry,” which is harmful for both the users and the companies. The European authorities, I believe, should decide, if they are willing to sacrifice some amount of protection for the healthy functioning of the current system.

For Schrems, however,  the Facebook’s issue is still top priority. The progress of his campaign against the organization is being published and updated on the following page. On his website called Europe versus Facebook he also comes out with a few points related, in his opinion, to Facebook’s abuse of power and the organization’s privacy violations. These are:

  1. Facebook is one of the companies that have no or little respect for the right to  personal data protection, which is a fundamental right in the EU
  2. Users do not know what actually happens to their data and cannot fully estimate the consequences of using the service
  3. Not all users are able or willing to set up the privacy settings
  4. Facebook is able to collect the personal data of those users who do not want to share their data
  5. Facebook offers no sufficient way of deleting the old data
  6. As the biggest monopoly in its area, Facebook is able to do practically anything without no real consequences

(the points are taken from www.europe-v-facebook.org) a more detailed summary of this can be found here

For me, I feel that all of these are well-known issues and every social networking or data collecting company can and probably does apply the same practices. It is just happened that Facebook became the biggest and the most universal one. People cannot just stop what they are doing on Facebook, whether it is blogging, covering events, promoting/selling their goods and services and other kinds of online activity just because their personal data is being stolen. Facebook helps one to make his or her own brand, to promote it, and, eventually, to make the brand appealing to a certain audience. Therefore, I believe the company’s monopoly is perfectly justified. The question is, however, if the issue requires any harsh reaction from the authorities at all. I understand perfectly why the dominance of such western companies as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook makes the European (not talking about the rest of the world) authorities nervous, but as we all know, more regulations lead to less freedom. I believe to come out with a proper substitute service has always been a better solution than just blocking or limiting the existing one (though it is not easy; even Google did not succeed.)

Another European figure decided to join the fight against western monopolies is Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer chief executive. Although the main target of his criticism is Google, he mentioned Facebook as well. Mr. Döpfner was shocked when he heard Mark Zuckerberg’s reply on a privacy-related question during one of the Zuckerberg’s conferences. Zuckerberg then said: “I do not understand your question. Those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear.”

“Again and again I had to think about this sentence. It’s terrible. I know it is certainly not meant that way. This is a mindset that was fostered in totalitarian regimes not in liberal societies. Such a sentence could also be said by the head of the Stasi or other intelligence service or a dictatorship,” Döpfner said to BBC.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user afagen

The last thing I would like to talk about is the freedom of speech-related regulations within the EU and how radical (and perhaps unnecessary) they can be. We can take a resent scandal happened in Germany as an example. It is about Martin Ott, Facebook’s managing director for northern, central and eastern Europe, whose case is now being investigated. Ott may be held responsible and criminally charged due to complaints that Facebook is not removing posts and comments containing hate speech towards the refugees. “Under German law, anyone who makes a public comment that incites hatred or violence against a person on the grounds of ethnicity or religion can face up to three years in prison. Under the same law, a person can be imprisoned for attacking the ‘human dignity of a person or group of people by insulting that group,'” writes Newsweek’s Felicity Capon. For me this seems too much. I do not think hate speech should be tolerated, especially in today’s sociopolitical environment, characterized, among other negative things, by the rise of Islamophobia among Europeans, but I also do not consider more regulations a proper solution. The only thing I am sure about is that we may never achieve progress in the democratization of the web space if we do not allow people to say what they want. I believe more troll-blocking techniques will appear in the future, but for now we should just be (or at least try to be) reasonable enough to filter the content by ourselves.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Raftery. The photo was taken by Facebook’s Chuck Goolsbee (the building pictured is Facebook’s Prineville Data Center)

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