Law student tackling Facebook on privacy


AN AUSTRIAN law student is to continue pushing Facebook to tighten its privacy regulations for European users after claiming the company’s hunger for private information rivals East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.

Law student Max Schrems held a six-hour meeting with two executives from Facebook at Vienna airport on Monday to discuss complaints surrounding the information Facebook retains on its users – even after deleted by users themselves.

As Facebook’s European base is Ireland, Mr Schrems and fellow law students filed a complaint with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner last year that the US company was in breach of European data protection guidelines.

Both Facebook and Mr Schrems described Monday’s meeting as “constructive” and the US social network said it had already begun “extensive” improvements to its regulations.

Mr Schrems said he was satisfied that Facebook was taking his arguments “very seriously”, but was unsatisfied with the progress.

He indicated that this was understood by Facebook, represented in Vienna by Richard Allan, policy director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Facebook is like a large tanker that is moving in the right direction but is not there yet,” Mr Schrems reported the executive as saying.

The Austrian students have promised to publish a full list of the discussion and arguments.

Facebook declined to comment in detail on the talks.

After the talks, Mr Schrems said Facebook had agreed to grant him and his fellow students full access to all data sets it holds on users.

The case began last year when Mr Schrems and two fellow students applied to Facebook for a copy of information the company held on them, an entitlement under EU regulations.

Their request yielded dossiers of up to 1,222 pages each, with data sets holding everything from public to private details and sensitive information such as political and sexual preferences. The students suggested the company was misleading users into believing deleted information was removed from company databases when, in fact, it is only rendered “invisible”.

From their own files, the three students ascertained that Facebook maintains a permanent database of messages and picture tags, and they believe other information is also retained permanently.

Facebook’s data retention policies are detailed in a 12-page privacy policy the students describe as “unclear, vague and contradictory”. It is mentioned in small grey print on the sign-up page, and the Austrians argue that many users would not examine this closely.

Mr Schrems said he would study the fresh information Facebook makes available to him and apply again to the data commissioner.