Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

Interview

Facebook, Skype challenged in EU over spy affair

  • Facebook opened a subsidiary in Ireland which is subject to EU data protection laws (Photo: Spencer E Holtaway)

A group of Austrians, led by law student Max Schrems, has challenged the EU-based subsidiaries of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo on data privacy following revelations that they allowed US intelligence services to search to Europeans' data.

Schrems is no novice when it comes to tackling Internet giants.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

In 2011 he launched the initiative Europe vs. Facebook, asking the US company to show him all the data they have on him. It turned out to be 1,222 pages of data from three years of Facebook use. Schrems' move eventually triggered some improvements in the company's privacy policy.

"The most interesting thing is that here in Europe we have laws on data protection, but we don't enforce them," Schrems told this website on Wednesday (17 July).

Schrems has filed complaints with the data protection offices in Ireland for Facebook and Apple, in Luxembourg for Skype and Microsoft, and in Germany for Yahoo.

The five companies were mentioned by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor who revealed that a massive surveillance programme (Prism) allows US intelligence services to sift through emails, read chats and listen to Skype conversations of anyone in the world.

"All these companies have set up subsidiaries in Europe to avoid taxes. They are on EU soil, so they have to abide by EU law, which says it is illegal to forward data if you cannot guarantee it is going to safe hands.

He also noted that in Europe the US authorities cannot apply a so-called gag order, which in US prohibits these companies on giving any information about Prism.

"Here they have to say what they do with the data and demonstrate it is safe," Schrems said.

All three national data protection offices have already sent questions to the companies based on Schrems' complaint.

"The European subsidiaries are legally responsible for the servers in the US, even though they don't process any data. They are trying to exploit the legal system in Europe to pay as little tax as possible, that's why they use this construction. So now we use this construction as well, to make them stick to EU law," the Austrian student said.

His hopes lie with the German data protection office, because the Irish one, he says, has so far proven to be a mere "rubberstamping office" for big companies.

"We don't know about Luxembourg yet, but if the Germans look into it, the Irish will also have to do something," Schrems said.

He explained that his first case filed in Ireland against Facebook with the data protection commission is still ongoing.

The whole exercise is not so much about "fighting the companies", but rather checking whether European data protection really works.

"I studied in Silicon Valley and there were companies coming to the classroom not knowing there is a European among them.

"They were saying it very bluntly: yes, Europe has strong data protection rules, but if you just pretend to respect them, you're fine. No way can they find out what we are doing on our servers and even if they do, it will take them at least 10 years to enforce anything."

The EU is currently revamping its data protection rules - a process that until now only Brussels aficionados have been following.

But with the Prism scandal in the news all over Europe, the EU data protection law is likely to get more media attention, Schrems predicts.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday said she wants the law to move ahead and to uphold the stricter German standards on data protection.

"This is a good thing. Lobbying is so intense and uneven on this law - Facebook alone has hired five lobbyists for this in Brussels, while on the other side, NGOs have maybe one person who also has to cover other topics too. And MEPs rarely go the extra mile of asking some independent experts or academics about it," Schrems said.

The European Commission earlier this week also said it wants to see the bill move faster through the European Parliament - where it is currently stuck - and come into force by May 2014.

MEPs want to scrap US data agreements

Frustrated MEPs want the EU to scrap data protection agreements with the US as they mount pressure on the member states to start negotiations on the EU data protection reforms.

News in Brief

  1. Estonia kicks out Danske Bank over money laundering scandal
  2. May and Juncker meet over Brexit on Wednesday
  3. EU promises to open up advisory groups
  4. EU agrees to limit CO2 emissions by trucks
  5. Juncker under attack in Hungary government ad
  6. EU would not oppose extending Brexit talks, Juncker said
  7. Juncker expects Trump not to impose new car tariffs
  8. Former EU official sentenced for office rape

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  2. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  3. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  5. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  7. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  8. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups

Latest News

  1. College of Europe alumni ask rector to cut Saudi ties
  2. EU says Hungary's anti-Juncker campaign is fake news
  3. Trump right for once: Europe should take back foreign fighters
  4. EU should clarify rules for plant burgers and lab meat
  5. Italian populists could be second biggest force in EU parliament
  6. Merkel defends Russia ties, ridicules Trump on cars
  7. British MPs condemn Facebook CEO's misrule
  8. EU's chance to step up on Hungary and Poland

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us