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December 5, 2012

Austrian Student Group in Court Over Facebook Privacy Issues

Campaign group europe-v-facebook is heading to court in Ireland with the goal of forcing Facebook to both offer more transparency and enhanced privacy protection for its users.

The organization, made up of Austrian students, said Dec. 4 it plans to appeal decisions by the data protection regulator in Ireland, where Facebook has its international headquarters.

The group has for more than a year been campaigning for better data protection by the social media site. So far, it has won a petition to compel Facebook to turn off its facial recognition feature in Europe. Facebook has also been forced to divulge more information on the amount of data it has for each user.

The group, however, has said more change is needed and expressed disappointment in the results of the Ireland Data Protection Commissioner’s investigation, launched after europe-v-facebook filed a variety of complaints.

“The Irish authority is miles away from other European data protection authorities in its understanding of the law, and failed to investigate many things. Facebook also gave the authority the runaround,” the group said in a statement. “We are hoping for a legally compliant solution from the Irish data protection authority. Unfortunately, that is highly doubtful at the moment. Therefore we are also preparing ourselves for a lawsuit in Ireland.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has painstakingly reviewed the site’s handling of European users data over the past year.

“The latest Data Protection report demonstrates not only how Facebook adheres to European data protection law but also how we go beyond it, in achieving best practice,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail to several media outlets. “Nonetheless we have some vocal critics who will never be happy whatever we do and whatever the DPC concludes.”

Europe-v-facebook founder Max Schrems has filed 22 complaints with the Irish regulator. Categories include: pokes, synchronizing, deleted tags, excessive processing of data, picture privacy settings and the site’s new policy to name a few.

“Even though we hope for a positive outcome on all complaints, our experience tells us that we have to expect that the authority might not decide in the interest of users, on all complaints,” Schrems said in a statement.

He said a decision against Facebook would be a “landmark decision.”

“Such a case would be a landmark for the whole IT industry, equally to the anti-trust cases against Microsoft,” he said. “If this would be only about Facebook, such a procedure would rather not make sense.”

Europe-v-facebook has filed an extensive report to the Irish audit detailing all alleged breaches of European law. The report can be downloaded here.

Facebook is also facing a class-action lawsuit in the United States, for allegedly violating privacy rights by publicizing users’ “likes” without offering a way for them to opt out.

A U.S. judge granted preliminary approval late Dec. 3 to a second endeavor to settle the case by paying users up to $10 each out of a $20 million fund.