“It is essential to me not to spread apocalyptic sentiments. It is about to call on people, like I do in my book, that improvements can actually be achieved and that we, the citizens, are in no way helpless when it comes to our rights.”
The story of Mac Schrems is one of engaging in a hard, long struggle that reached a pivotal moment in October 2015, when the European High Court ruled that the US can no longer portray themselves as a ‘safe harbor’ for the data trails of European citizens.
On 26 June 2013, the law student turned privacy activist filed a complaint against “Facebook Ireland”, the international headquarter of Facebook Inc., with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. Schrems argued that the transfer of customer data to the US, where these data were processed, constitutes a “transfer to a third country,” which is only legal in the European Union if the receiving country can guarantee adequate protection of these data. Because the data is forwarded from Facebook Inc. to the NSA and other US authorities for mass surveillance programs, the core claim was that personal data transferred to the US is not adequately protected once it reaches the United States. About one year later, the Irish High Court referred the case to the European Court of Justice.
Max Schrems and his thousands of supporters did not give in. On 6 October 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the regulation of data transfers under the ‘Safe Harbour’ agreement between the European Union and the US, which allowed tech firms to share their data, was invalid. The court followed Schrems’ interpretation, stating that Facebook and other digital operators do not provide customers with protection from state surveillance, and concluded that the US thus “does not afford an adequate level of protection of personal data.
In a first reaction, Schrems stated that “this case law will be a milestone for constitutional challenges against similar surveillance conducted by EU member states.” He also thanked the bravery of ex-security analyst Edward Snowden, whose revelations about mass surveillance had played a pivotal role for the Strasbourg decision. In this interview with award-winning technology journalist John Kennedy, he provides background information on the case against Facebook, how end users’ lack of technical knowledge fosters their lack of necessary mistrust and how business interests outrank the question of legality.