Saturday

21st Oct 2017

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

EU gives thumbs up to US data pact

Commission gives 'thumbs-up' to controversial Privacy Shield deal with US on data sharing after a year's operation - but notes room for improvement.

News in Brief

  1. Rajoy to trigger Article 155 on Saturday in Catalan crisis
  2. EU conducts unannounced inspection of German car firm
  3. Lithuania calls for new EU energy laws
  4. EU leaders aim for December for defence cooperation
  5. Juncker says hands tied on Russia pipeline
  6. Czechs set to elect billionaire Andrej Babis
  7. Italian regions hold referendums on more autonomy
  8. EU leaders refuse to mediate Catalonia conflict

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUPresident Xi Jinping Proposes Stronger Global Security Governance at Interpol Assembly
  2. European Friends of ArmeniaEU Engagement Could Contribute to Lasting Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh
  3. UNICEFViolence in Myanmar Driving 12,000 Rohingya Refugee Children Into Bangladesh Every Week
  4. European Jewish CongressBulgaria Applauded for Adopting the Working Definition of Antisemitism
  5. EU2017EENorth Korea Leaves Europe No Choice, Says Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser
  6. Mission of China to the EUZhang Ming Appointed New Ambassador of the Mission of China to the EU
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU Should Seek Concrete Commitments From Azerbaijan at Human Rights Dialogue
  8. European Jewish CongressEJC Calls for New Austrian Government to Exclude Extremist Freedom Party
  9. CES - Silicones EuropeIn Healthcare, Silicones Are the Frontrunner. And That's a Good Thing!
  10. EU2017EEEuropean Space Week 2017 in Tallinn from November 3-9. Register Now!
  11. European Entrepreneurs CEA-PMEMobiliseSME Exchange Programme Open Doors for 400 Companies Across Europe
  12. CECEE-Privacy Regulation – Hands off M2M Communication!

Latest News

  1. The mysterious German behind Orban's Russian deals
  2. Mogherini urged to do more on Russian propaganda
  3. Turkey funding cuts signal EU mood shift
  4. Posted workers top EU agenda This Week
  5. Leaders lobby to host EU agencies at summit's margins
  6. Legal tweak could extend EU control on Russia pipeline
  7. Ukraine language law does not harm minorities
  8. EU begins preparations for Brexit trade talks