"Facebook continues to breach personal data privacy rights in Europe, says a group of human rights organizations, and it demands that Facebook’s EU-US data transfers stop by February 6, 2016. Facebook has formally responded.

As previously reported, the Privacy First Foundation, Public Interest Litigation Project PILP and the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights (collectively, “Privacy First”) sent Facebook a demand letter, to which Facebook has now replied in writing.

Facebook’s written response

Facebook responded to Privacy First’s demand letter by giving written assurances of data protection in accordance with current law–that is, those parts of the Privacy Directive that survived the ruling in Schrems, the case that invalidated Safe Harbor.

Specifically, Facebook states that “the grounds for transfer of data set out in Article 26 of the Directive remain entirely lawful,” and that it complies with “these other grounds to transfer data legally from the European Union to the United States .” Facebook further challenged the Dutch tribunal Privacy First plans to use, as lacking competence over Facebook Ireland, the party it asserts is the data controller for data of Facebook Netherlands.

Privacy First’s reply

Privacy First, in its reply through its counsel Boekx, Amsterdam, reiterated its position that the other instruments currently used as basis for EU-US data transfers (such as Standard Contractual Clauses or individual consent) are “fundamentally flawed, as these options do not resolve the problems identified by the European Court of Justice in the Schrems judgment.”

Privacy First’s reply further reserves its rights to initiate legal proceedings in the Hague “requesting a preliminary injunction and/or raising prejudicial questions with the European Court of Justice” if Facebook doesn’t stop EU-US data transfers or provide adequate protections by February 6th, 2016.

Clearly, Privacy First and its co-plaintiffs are not happy with Facebook's response. (...)

Competent court

Facebook’s letter also challenges the competence of Dutch courts to hear proceedings in the Netherlands against Facebook Ireland, which it alleges is the true data controller, not Facebook Netherlands B.V. Regarding the competence issue, [Boekx] said that Dutch courts have rendered decisions in the past against both Facebook parties.

As reported, the EU and US are currently negotiating replacement of the Safe Harbor Agreement; there is a meeting of the negotiating parties scheduled for February 2nd to discuss EU-US data transfers and how to ensure protections for EU citizens in the legal uncertainties left by Schrems.

Further delays possible

Due to delay in legislation in the U.S. that may be one of the EU’s preconditions to Safe Harbor (the Judicial Redress Act), further delays in Safe Harbor resolution are expected (by some) that could take those negotiations beyond the February 6 deadline set by Privacy First. These delays could set Facebook up for proceedings that, if successful, would result in a shutdown of its EU-US data transfers. (...)"

Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisabrownlee/2016/01/27/facebook-fires-back-in-eu-privacy-dispute/#2fe9f2801d5b, 27 January 2016.

"Non siamo la pecora nera, e rispettiamo le stesse regole degli altri. Potremmo così sintetizzare il nocciolo della difesa di Facebook contro le accuse di alcune organizzazioni pro-privacy e utenti olandesi che hanno chiesto, con lettera formale, di impedire il trasferimento di dati personali degli iscritti verso gli Stati Uniti, dove risiedono molti suoi data center e molte delle sue aziende inserzioniste. Minacciando azioni legali nel caso il social network non interrompa questa pratica prima del 16 gennaio. Le radici della vicenda sono note: dalla denuncia inoltrata nel 2013 dallo studente austriaco Max Schrems, fino alla recente decisione della Corte di Giustizia dell’Unione Europea di invalidare gli accordi regolati dal Safe Harbor.Vero è che le nuove regole comunitarie travolgono non solo la creatura di Mark Zuckerberg bensì circa quattromila aziende statunitensi presenti sul Web, però è altrettanto vero che l’attenzione mediatica e le preoccupazioni si concentrano inevitabilmente su Facebook, luogo dove più di ogni altro le vite private diventano condivise. Ma anche il social network delle immagini, Instagram, e la più popolare fra le applicazioni di messaggistica, WhatsApp (entrambe proprietà dell’azienda di Menlo Park) sono coinvolti.

La lettera in questione, infatti, è stata inviata alle sedi di Facebook in California, in Olanda e in Irlanda così come alle sedi di Instagram e Whatsapp. Il mittente è uno studio legale di Amsterdam, Boekx, che parla in rappresentanza di tre associazioni pro-privacy (Stichting Privacy First, Public Interest Litigation Project e Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights) e di privati cittadini olandesi. La richiesta è, appunto, quella di interrompere il trasferimento dei dati verso gli States entro le ore 18 del gennaio, a meno di non voler incorrere in azioni legali.

Nelle parole dell’avvocato Otto Volgenant dello studio Boekx, “Vogliamo fare pressione su Facebook” e indurre Zuckerberg a pronunciarsi in merito al dibattito sulla privacy in corso nei governi di diversi Paesi. Se poi Facebook facesse ostruzionismo, la protesta degli olandesi potrebbe arrivare dapprima in un tribunale nazionale e poi da qui alla Corte Europea di Giustizia.

La replica della società californiana, arrivata tramite Forbes da un portavoce dell’azienda, Matt Steinfeld, esordisce ribadendo che il social network “utilizza i medesimi meccanismi impiegati da migliaia di altre aziende per trasferire legittimamente dati dall’Europa agli Stati Uniti e ad altri Paesi in tutto in mondo”. E poi fa una proposta: “Crediamo che il modo migliore per risolvere l’attuale dibattito sul trasferimento dei dati oltre l’oceano sia creare un nuovo patto di Safe Harbour, che garantisca adeguate tutele ai cittadini europei”. Il social network, dunque, non si sottrae alla possibilità di modifiche del regolamento ma anzi si auspica che le discussioni in corso fra organismi regolatori europei e statunitensi, e fra essi e i rispettivi governi sfocino presto in un “esito positivo”, ha dichiarato Steinfeld."

Source: http://www.ictbusiness.it/cont/news/l-attacco-olandese-e-la-difesa-facebook-non-siamo-peggio-di-altri/36065/1.html#.VoJYKfFIiUn, 17 December 2015.

"Facebook, Inc. and related entities have received a letter demanding them to stop EU-US data transfers until U.S. laws comply with the EU data protection regime, or risk lawsuit in the Netherlands. Facebook must cease transfer by 15 January 2016. The complaining parties have reserved rights to file suit if compliance is not forthcoming.

The demand and summons letter was sent today by the Boekx law firm in Amsterdam on behalf of numerous plaintiffs including:
• Privacy First Foundation (Stichting Privacy First)
• Public Interest Litigation Project PILP
• Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights
and other users of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The letter was sent to Facebook Netherlands B.V., Facebook Ireland Limited, Facebook Inc. and Instagram LLC (California), and WhatsApp Inc. (California).

Facebook response

Facebook spokesperson Matt Steinfeld provided (...) the following written statement:

“Facebook uses the same mechanisms that thousands of others companies across the EU use to transfer data legally from the EU to the US, and to other countries around the world. We believe that the best solution to the on-going debate around transatlantic data transfers is for there to be a new Safe Harbor agreement with appropriate safeguards for EU citizens.”
“We understand that authorities in the EU and US are working hard to put such an agreement in place as soon as possible. We trust that these groups are engaging with their respective governments on this process to help it reach a successful conclusion.”

Lawsuit intended to pressure Facebook

Otto Volgenant of the Boekx stated to Dutch outlet RTLZ, “We want to put pressure on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg must make its voice heard in the debate about privacy, the US government has the solution for this problem.” According to Volgenant (as reported), the case would first be brought in The Hague, which could exercise its option to refer the case to the European Court of Justice.

Volgenant predicted that such referral would not be made, given the clarity of law on the topic since the recent Schrems ruling of the European Court of Justice (discussed further below).

U.S. compliant-laws required

Specifically, the demand requires that Facebook “end the current unlawful transfer of personal data from the European Union to the United States” until the U.S. adopts laws “essentially equivalent to” European data protection laws, or face lawsuit in the Netherlands. The summons gives Facebook until Friday 15 January 2016 (18:00 CET) to cease EU-US transfers, or risk having a court force it and related Facebook entities, through an injunction, to cease such transfers.

Facebook “remarkably absent” in data privacy discussions

In its letter, Boekx accuses Facebook of being “remarkably absent” in the public debate over EU-US data transfers, following the European Court of Justice decision in Schrems, which decision invalidated the so-called “Safe Harbor Agreement” between the U.S. and the E.U. and thus made such transfers illegal under E.U. law., effective immediately upon rendering of that decision. (...)

The demand letter further articulates the specifics of the Schrems decision, including that court’s conclusions that the NSA violated “European fundamental rights to respect for private life” by its “access on a generalized basis to the content of electronic communications.”
(...)
The letter concludes:

If we cannot find an amicable solution and Facebook does not refrain from further transfer of personal data of data subjects from the European Union to the United States by then, we reserve the right to initiate legal proceedings in the Netherlands and to request a preliminary injunction from the competent Dutch Court."

Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisabrownlee/2015/12/15/facebook-threatened-with-lawsuit-over-eu-us-data-transfers-facebook-response/, 15 December 2015.

Today the Privacy First Foundation and three other public interest groups as well as a number of Dutch individual users of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram request Mark Zuckerberg to join the public debate following the landmark Schrems-judgment of the European Court of Justice.

On 6 October 2015, the European Court of Justice invalidated the Safe Harbour Decision, which was the basis for Facebook’s transfer of personal data from the European Union to the United States. The Grand Chamber of the Court found that the legislation of the United States fails to ensure a level of protection essentially equivalent to that guaranteed in the legal order of the European Union. The NSA has access to Facebook content of users from the European Union, without any judicial redress being available to them. The Court held that this compromises the essence of the fundamental right to privacy. These issues have not been resolved yet.

Following the judgment, Facebook continued the transfer of personal data from the European Union to the United States. Bas Filippini of Privacy First says: ‘Absent an adequate level of protection in the United States, the continued transfer of personal data is clearly incompatible with European data protection laws. Such transfer violates the rights of millions of individuals. If this is not resolved shortly, we will initiate legal action.’

To date, Facebook has been remarkably absent in the public debate that followed this landmark judgment. Ton Siedsma of Bits of Freedom says: ‘We invite Facebook to publicly engage in a meaningful and transparent dialogue aimed at finding a solution, and to pressure the authorities to find such solution. Facebook is invited to publicly share its current and intended policies and practice on data transfer.’

Today, Facebook was summoned to come up with an adequate solution ultimately by 15 January 2016. If it fails to do so, civil rights groups and a number of Dutch individuals will request the Court in The Hague to grant an injunction ordering Facebook to immediately cease the transfer of personal data to the United States. This pertains to all services of Facebook, including WhatsApp and Instagram.

‘As long as the United States fails to provide an adequate level of protection against mass surveillance, personal data may not be transferred to the United States. Taking Facebook to court emphasizes the urgency of resolving this issue.’ says Jelle Klaas of the Public Interest Litigation Project of NJCM, the Dutch section of the International Commission of Jurists. ‘Our goal is not to put the screens of millions of users to black, but to enhance the current level of privacy protection. Hopefully, a solution can be found shortly by the legislators.’

Click HERE for our entire letter of summons to Mark Zuckerberg (pdf).

Update 21 January 2016: shortly before the deadline Facebook responded to our letter of summons by fax, click HERE (pdf). According to Facebook, there is still a suitable legal basis for the transfer of personal data from the EU to the US, despite the invalidity of Safe Harbour. Privacy First et al. contest this and have today sent a response to Facebook, click HERE (pdf).

In the discussion about a newly proposed surveillance bill in England, Facebook, following our summons letter, has made it publicly clear that:

“Governments should not be able to compel the production of private communications content absent authorization from an independent and impartial judicial official. (...) Surveillance laws should not permit bulk collection of information. The principles require that the Government specifically identify the individuals or accounts to be targeted and should expressly prohibit bulk surveillance.”

However, it is precisely these aspects where, according to the European Court of Justice, the legal protection in the US is inadequate. In our letter of this afternoon, Privacy First et al. have therefore requested Facebook to present their standpoint also in the debate about mass surveillance in the US. Negotiations about this issue are currently ongoing between the EU and the US. It would be good if Facebook gets involved in this debate, in line with the standpoint it voiced in relation to the English legislative proposal.

If in the short term a solution will not be found for the fundamental privacy issues the European Court of Justice has identified, Privacy First et al. will consider bringing interim injunction proceedings before the district court of The Hague.

Published in Litigation

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