Facebook Foe Says `I Told You So' as Data Scandal Escalates

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(Bloomberg) -- For Facebook Inc.’s nemesis, Austrian activist Max Schrems, the global backlash against the social network is a bitter-sweet experience.

Lawmakers across the world have expressed outrage over allegations that the personal information of about 50 million users was obtained by Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that helped elect President Donald Trump.

But Schrems, a law-school graduate who has taken on Facebook many times and won a landmark European Union court ruling in 2015, said he already sounded the alarm about a “privacy flaw” that exposed Facebook users’ data seven years ago. He filed complaints about the issue to the data regulator in Ireland, where the U.S. tech giant has its European base. No one listened, he said.

“I find it amusing that people are now taking it seriously and getting upset about all this,” said Schrems in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I raised this all already in 2011.”

The 30-year-old’s relentless campaign for tougher privacy standards in 2015 led the EU’s top court to annul a trans-Atlantic data-sharing pact amid concerns that U.S. security services could gain unfettered access to Facebook customer information sent to the U.S. He managed to get a second case all the way up to the EU top judges in 2016 seeking their green light to bring collective consumer lawsuits against Facebook. He lost that case last year.

‘Moving Aggressively’

Facebook didn’t respond directly to Schrems’s comments, pointing to its statements in recent days that it is “constantly working to improve the safety and experience of everyone” who uses the network. The company said it was “moving aggressively to determine the accuracy” of reports about the alleged privacy breach. “We remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.”

Regulators throughout the EU and U.S. are examining whether information on millions of Facebook users was illegally held by Cambridge Analytica after it was obtained from a researcher who shared the data without Facebook’s permission. According to published news reports, Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan created a personality-analysis app that was used by 270,000 Facebook users, who in turn gave the app permission to access data on themselves and their friends, ultimately exposing a network of 50 million.

Cambridge Analytica said it “strongly” denied “false allegations” in the media and said that the Facebook data at the center of the scandal wasn’t used as part of services provided to the Trump campaign.

Schrems is waiting for much stricter EU privacy rules to kick in on May 25, saying under the current regime regulators just don’t have sufficient powers to properly enforce the law against big tech companies.

“This would have been far more exciting” if the EU rules -- called the General Data Protection Regulation -- were already in force “because then they would face a potential group lawsuit with 50 million affected users,” said Schrems.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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