We prefer a good Parliament but we'll take Facebook, too.

We prefer a good Parliament but we’ll take Facebook, too.

If you weren’t aware before, Facebook has been having issues in Europe. Privacy, internet security, and storage of data are all things Max Schrems considered when he launched legal actions against Facebook. Staffer Nikki Shaner-Bradford covered what Mr. Schrems said regarding the legal action against Facebook.

How is our privacy protected in the digital age? Are there cultural ways of dealing with a problem? Where do security measures become overly intrusive?

These are a few of the questions that were addressed at the European Institute sponsored panel on February 22nd featuring Max Schrems on “The Digital Divide: EU v. US over Data Protection.” Topics ranged from the ways Europe and the United States differ in their perspectives on privacy law (hint: the US has next to none) to the nuances of the European courts system to the fate of foreigner data in the hands of US based corporations.

The event began with a speech from Max Schrems, a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna, who famously took unprecedented legal actions against Facebook for their inadequate (read: complete lack of) compliance with European privacy law, as well as the possible distribution of information to the NSA in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Schrems began by providing a brief overview of the actions he took, as well as the privacy violations that had occurred, with the purpose of outlining both the legal implications and the transnational effects of privacy law in Europe. He made the important distinction that privacy is a cultural issue, and discussions regarding privacy have no right or wrong answers. Rather, they fall along a grey scale depending on culture, background, and personal conditioning. This becomes an issue within the digital age as we communicate without the hindrance of national borders, but instead with a reliance on global networks. In this situation, who makes the privacy laws? How do these global networks protect the personal data of citizens in different nations, with different perspectives and legal initiatives?

In Europe, privacy is regarded as a fundamental human right. However, when Schrems began investigating the protection of his personal data, he found that these laws were blatantly unenforced. Additionally, he brought greater publicity to the inadequacy of the Safe Harbour agreement — some US corporations were required to protect EU and Swiss citizens under EU privacy laws — as he regarded it with suspicion in lieu of Edward Snowden’s release of information regarding US intelligence. Since this time, Schrems has created the group Europe v Facebook, on top of bringing a class action lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of 25,000 users. Through his speech, Schrems relayed both his story, as well as the intricacies of the ways in which Facebook is subject to both US and EU law. In his research, he has found both to consider privacy in different ways. While the US is concerned primarily with the specific data pulled, the EU maintains a greater focus on what data is generally accessible and the theoretical possibility of its usage. As of today, the United States’ “privileged” status has been revoked due to its inadequate privacy law, however there have been talks to create an EU-US privacy shield, though the reality of that idea is unclear.

After Schrems’ speech, the event turned to a panel discussion featuring Max Schrems, Julia Angwin, and Peter Micek with Anya Schiffrin and Adam Tooze as moderators on the subjects of privacy law and EU-US relations. During this time, the panel took audience questions and participated in an open dialogue on a range of topics. In particular, the fact that our data is often not within our control, but that the information our Facebook profiles accrue is often dictated by our friends’ posts. The panel also revisited the idea of cultural differences, and how different national histories generate alternate perspectives on such important issues such as privacy. Lastly, the panel touched upon the idea of privatized privacy, and privacy as a commodity. Schrems made the point that unlike a newspaper or other online publication, the content that social media relays is solely provided by us through our posts. The panel left open questions to ponder, like where do we draw the line in terms of privacy? How far is too far?

While Schrems’ “David and Goliath” suit against Facebook and investigation of the Safe Harbour agreement are only the starting point for an ongoing discourse on privacy and data protection, the event was enlightening and brought about an important conversation to improve transparency between two nations as they navigate the inevitable transition to a more digital age.

As Schrems stated, the discussion of privacy is “not a tangible debate,” but that doesn’t mean we don’t need tangible actions.

Blazing up Facebook via Artthings / CC BY-SA 3.0