Austrian activist, 25,000 supporters seek right to bring class-action suit against Facebook

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) heard arguments on Wednesday over whether to allow a class action suit against Facebook, brought by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems - and about 25,000 other users across the globe.

FILE PHOTO: Austrian data activist Max Schrems talks to the media in the courthouse after his trial against Facebook in Vienna April 9, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

Schrems is claiming 500 euros ($576) in damages for each signatory to his lawsuit, one of a series of European challenges to U.S. technology firms and their handling of personal data.

Schrems’s lawsuit concerns alleged violations of privacy by Facebook through its use of personal data and tracking of users on external pages, among other things.

Schrems argues it is vital that the case be treated as a class-action suit. He believes 25,000 individual lawsuits on user privacy would be “impossible” due to the financial burden on users and the inefficiency for judges.

“If privacy claims cannot be grouped, they (Facebook) can get away with violating the law,” Schrems said in a statement.

While common in the United States, class action suits are generally not recognized in Europe.

Facebook calls the suit a way to get around that, brought by an activist so well-known he has merited an exhibit dedicated to his campaign against Facebook in Berlin’s Spy Museum.

Schrems launched the lawsuit in August 2014 at his home court in Vienna against Facebook Ireland Ltd, the subsidiary offering the social network to more than 80 percent of active users worldwide.

Around 25,000 other Facebook users transferred their financial claims to him, forming an artificial class action suit, although legally the case remains between two parties.

Austria’s Supreme Court referred two questions to the European court.

Firstly, it asked whether people lose the status of “consumer” when they publish books, deliver lectures, collect donations and operate websites.

Secondly, in the event that Schrems could be considered a consumer, it asked whether it could hear the class action case when some of the consumers involved may not be based in Austria or even in the EU.

Facebook argues that Schrems cannot be considered a “consumer”.

He has spoken and written extensively on privacy law, and, according to Facebook, used the social media platform to further those professional activities - something Schrems denies.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “Mr. Schrems’s claims have twice been rejected on the grounds that they cannot proceed as ‘class action’ on behalf of other consumers in Austrian courts. We were pleased to be able to present to the CJEU and look forward to resolving these claims.”

European consumer group BEUC backed Schrems’s bid to have the case handled as a class action.

“Consumers are often powerless when tech giants breach data protection rules,” said BEUC’s Christoph Schmon. “It makes sense to bundle multiple claims and avoid parallel procedures in different countries.”

A court adviser, Advocate General Michal Bobek, is expected to issue his opinion on November 7, with the final judgment to come by the end of the year.

Reporting by Elizabeth Miles, editing by Julia Fioretti and Adrian Croft