European court begins hearing on Facebook data transfer case

The origins of the clash date back to a complaint by an Austrian privacy campaigner in 2013

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) began last Tuesday hearing on a landmark case against Facebook over the legality of the transfer of user data between Europe and the US, news wires reported. The case, involving the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) as well, focuses over the legality of the transfer of user data.

ECJ judges must decide whether Facebook's data transfers violate EU citizens' fundamental right to privacy. The case is to consider in detail on the use of legal mechanisms called standard contractual clauses (SCCs) under which European Facebook users' data is transferred across the Atlantic. The outcome could have much wider implications for a range of businesses that rely on SCCs to regularly and systematically export personal data from inside the EU.

The legal action was referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union by the Irish High Court, which has asked it to decide on 11 questions relating to SCCs. That move followed the taking of a case by Data Protection Commission chief, Helen Dixon, seeking clarity on the issue.

But the origins of the case date back to a complaint made against Facebook to the Commission by Austrian privacy campaigner, Max Schrems, in 2013. He sought to stop transfers of personal data by the social network to the US from the EU, after former US security contractor turned whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, disclosed that the US intelligence services had access to personal data of European technology users under surveillance programs like PRISM.

Schrems argued that the data is not sufficiently protected against United States surveillance. He also noted that companies in the US are required to make data available to federal authorities, such as the FBI. Furthermore, EU users who are impacted cannot challenge the decision in court. But Facebook has argued that EU law does not apply to national security decisions.

In 2015 Shrems won a landmark case that led to the Safe Harbour data transfer agreement between the two territories being ruled invalid. Schrems was then allowed to amend and resubmit his complaint to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner focusing on the legality of SCCs. Then the High Court was asked to refer the matter to the European Court of Justice for adjudication. In October 2017 the High Court gave its judgement in the matter and the following May sent a number of issues to the ECJ.

That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court by Facebook, but the appeal was dismissed in May of this year allowing the European court hearing to proceed. A judgement is expected to be delivered by the ECJ by the end of the year.

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