Facebook privacy class action suit in Austria to kick off in April

An Austrian court will deal with the admissibility of the case during the first hearing

An Austrian court has set a date for Facebook to face a class action complaint about its privacy policy from 25,000 of its users.

The suit was filed in August last year by Max Schrems, front man of the Austrian group Europe-v-Facebook. He claimed Facebook violates European Union law by tracking users on external pages through social plugins, by the use of "big data" systems to spy on users as well with the aid it allegedly gives to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for one of its spy programs.

On April 9, the Vienna Regional Court is set to deal with the admissibility of the case in a first hearing, Europe-v-Facebook said Monday.

Facebook has argued it cannot be sued by a large number of people and argues that the suit is inadmissible in Austria, according to Europe-v-Facebook, whose lawyer Wolfram Proksch said in the news release that Facebook's claims "lack any substance." He rebutted the company's claims in a court filing earlier this month and is confident the case will be accepted.

Facebook declined to comment on the legal proceedings.

While the suit was filed by Schrems, he used a possibility in Austrian law to let other interested parties assign their claims to his suit and also sue on their behalf. Within a week, 25,000 Facebook users signed up to join his case against Facebook Ireland, the Facebook entity responsible for processing the data of users outside the U.S. and Canada.

The group stopped accepting sign-ups after the first 25,000, but more than 50,000 additional Facebook users have since registered on fbclaim.com to express an interest in joining the class action at a later stage. Each user currently assigned to the case is claiming €500 (about US$562) in damages, amounting to a total claim of €12.5 million. Apart from Facebook possibly having to pay millions in damages, the court could also declare its business practices illegal under EU law, Europe-v-Facebook said.

Whether the case will even reach a verdict though still remains to be seen.

Facebook's privacy practices have been subjected to increased scrutiny in the EU since it announced in November it would change its privacy policy on Jan. 1. After pressure from European regulators though it has delayed the change until Jan. 30, saying it wanted to give people more time to get familiar with the changes.

The new policy is being investigated by the Dutch privacy authority since last month, because it could violate Dutch data protection laws.

Though no official investigation was started in Germany, the new policy is also under scrutiny of data protection authorities there. And notably, on Monday, the country's ministry of justice joined the choir of negative responses ahead of the Friday switch.

If Facebook constantly keeps track of its users to determine how they react to online deals, there is a "great danger" that they will become predictable and can be manipulated, Ulrich Kelber, Secretary of State of the ministry of justice, told Tagesspiegel.

Kelber also criticized the way Facebook is forcing its users to accept the new policy. If a user logs on to the social network on Friday, they automatically accept the changes which basically gives users only one choice, everything or nothing, Kelber noted.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation 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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