Law student wins landmark privacy case against Facebook and is congratulated by Edward Snowden

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By Alex Aldridge on

Vienna University’s Max Schrems has created a piece of EU law in his spare time


A law student has crowned what must be the best ever extra-curricular interests section of a CV after he won an epic legal battle against Facebook in his spare time.

Vienna University’s Max Schrems yesterday emerged victorious in the final round of his David v Goliath privacy action against Facebook in the European Court of Justice.

In doing so, law PhD student Schrems, 28, has changed EU law and sent shockwaves through the corporate world — while also no doubt impressing potential future employers.

Lawyers have already labelled yesterday’s result in the ECJ a “bombshell” ruling as it has invalidated the so-called “Safe Harbor” agreement, which gives US companies including Facebook access to the online information of millions of EU citizens.

Schrems’ win was such a big deal for global data privacy law that it even elicited a congratulatory tweet from Edward Snowden.

It all began four years ago when Schrems did a year abroad studying at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. There, he happened to attend a talk by a Facebook privacy lawyer that allegedly downplayed the importance of Europe’s privacy laws.

This riled the young law student, who decided to test the strength of EU legislation that granted him the right to receive the data Facebook held on him.

In response to his request, Facebook sent Schrems a CD with 1,200 pages of his own data on it, featuring everything he had ever done on Facebook, including every contact he had ever made via the site and even his contacts’ contacts.

Freaked out by the level of information held by the company on individuals — which he compared to the files kept on East German citizens by the Stasi — Schrems then launched a case against Facebook, whose European base is in Dublin, via Ireland’s data protection commissioner. At the same time, he founded a campaign website, Europe vs Facebook, to fund his battle — all in his spare time on top of his legal studies.

Having lost at first instance — and had his complaint described as “frivolous and vexatious” — Schrems then won at appeal in the Irish High Court. Eventually his case reached the ECJ in Luxembourg, which yesterday found in the student’s favour and struck down the framework underpinning the data transfers of thousands of companies.

In response to the decision, Schrems commented:

I very much welcome the judgment of the court, which will hopefully be a milestone when it comes to online privacy. This judgment draws a clear line. It clarifies that mass surveillance violates our fundamental rights. The decision also highlights that governments and businesses cannot simply ignore our fundamental right to privacy, but must abide by the law and enforce it.

In a follow-up quote given to the Financial Times, the law student added that “I just take a legal perspective, this is no crazy personal thing” and claimed that “I don’t feel this is the thing I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Legal Cheek imagines that Schrems won’t be short of offers if he decides he wants to practise law.