Thursday 19 April 2018

Facebook users in Ireland in limbo after court ruling

Europe may decide to suspend data transfer with US

Data protection
Data protection
Austrian Max Schrems waits for a verdict at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg yesterday
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Irish internet users will be stuck in limbo for up to a year as Europe waits to see whether Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner cuts off Facebook traffic between Europe and the US.

Irish regulatory sources say that a new investigation of Facebook could take "many months" due to the scale and depth of the probe.

The stalemate comes as Europe's highest court slammed US privacy standards and said that European citizens' rights were being meddled with by US spies and police authorities.

The European Court Of Justice said the "interference" by US authorities with European personal data means that Europe may now "suspend" data transfer arrangements between the trading blocs, known as 'Safe Harbour'.

But it said that the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, needed to make the decision with regard to curtailing Facebook data activity between the EU and the US.

The ruling could mean that Facebook users in Ireland and the EU see restricted features in future.

The European court decision is the result of an action brought against Facebook in the Irish High Court by an Austrian student, Max Schrems. Mr Schrems argued that Facebook flouted privacy because personal data processed by the company was unprotected from snooping US authorities.

In a judgment that is set to have global connotations, the European Court Of Justice agreed with Mr Schrems on US privacy standards and has struck down the international 'Safe Harbour' agreement.

US laws "permitting the public authorities to have access on a generalised basis to the content of electronic communications must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life", said the EU court. The pact "is accordingly invalid", it said.

And it called on Irish regulatory authorities to take action.

"This judgment has the consequence that the Irish supervisory authority is required to examine Mr Schrems's complaint with all due diligence," said a court statement. "And, at the conclusion of its investigation, it is to decide whether transfer of the data of Facebook's European subscribers to the United States should be suspended on the grounds that that country does not afford an adequate level of protection of personal data."

Edward Snowden, the man whose revelations about US spies tapping into the world's Facebook, Google and Microsoft accounts played a key part in the European Court's ruling, welcomed the decision.

"This is the second time in as many years the world has relied upon [European Court Of Justice] to defend digital rights," he said in a tweet. "Thank you Europe."

Mr Schrems, who instigated the case, also expressed satisfaction at the verdict.

"The ruling won't make it very easy to repair this and a quick fix won't be possible either," Mr Schrems told reporters in Luxembourg. "But it's the first time that something actually happened in this entire mass surveillance box. It clarifies that mass surveillance violates our fundamental rights."

The court judgment drew an immediate response from the European Commission, which is trying to update the 'Safe Harbour' treaty with stricter privacy conditions.

"In the light of the ruling, we will continue this work towards a new and safe framework for the transfer of personal data across the Atlantic," said commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.

"Let me remind you that following the Snowden revelations in 2013, the commission had identified the shortcomings of the Safe Harbour arrangement and had made 13 concrete recommendations on how to make the Safe Harbour safer."

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business