By Georgina Prodhan
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian law student Max Schrems appealed to a billion Facebook users around the world on Friday to join a class-action lawsuit against Facebook's alleged violations of its users' privacy, stepping up a years-long data-protection campaign.
Schrems, a thorn in Facebook's side who has a case involving the social network pending at the European Court of Justice, has filed a claim at Vienna's commercial court and invited others to join the action at www.fbclaim.com using their Facebook login.
Under Austrian law, a group of people may transfer their financial claims to a single person - in this case, Schrems. Legal proceedings are then effectively run as a class action.
Schrems is claiming damages of 500 euros ($670) per user for alleged data violations, including aiding the U.S. National Security Agency in running its Prism program, which mined the personal data of users of Facebook and other web services.
The 26-year-old is also seeking injunctions under EU data-protection law at the court in data-privacy-friendly Austria. "Our aim is to make Facebook finally operate lawfully in the area of data protection," he said.
Facebook has come under fire before for allegedly violating data-protection laws.
Most recently, Britain's data watchdog began investigating whether a 2012 experiment on unwitting users, in which it tried to alter their emotional state to see if their postings turned more positive or negative.
The world's biggest social network, Facebook now has 1.32 billion users. It posted a 61 percent increase in sales in the second quarter thanks to mobile advertising, sending its shares to a record high and valuing the company at almost $200 billion.
Facebook declined to comment on the Schrems case on Friday.
POINTING THE FINGER
Users from anywhere outside the United States and Canada may sign up to join the Austrian case, since Facebook runs all its international operations from Ireland, another EU country. The case relies largely on the EU Data Protection Directive. Europe in general has stricter data-protection rules than the United States and considers itself more privacy-conscious.
But its history of enforcing data protection is mixed, bar a few high-profile cases such as the ECJ's ruling in May that compels internet companies to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from search results.
"We have this habit of pointing the finger at the United States, but we're not enforcing our rights anyway," Schrems told Reuters. "If we can get a class action through like this, it will send out a huge signal to the industry overall."
Schrems has had limited success pursuing cases in Ireland, home to the European or international headquarters of some of the largest U.S. technology companies, including Microsoft and Google, who employ thousands there.
His europe-v-facebook group appealed to the Irish High Court to rule on allegations that U.S. companies helped the NSA harvest private data from EU citizens after the Irish data watchdog said there were no grounds for an investigation.
The High Court referred the case to the ECJ.
Schrems's Austrian court case relies on EU law for the alleged data violations, which also include tracking of users on external websites through Facebook's "like" button and unauthorized sharing of user data with external applications.
The claims for damages will have to be assessed under more financially generous California law, Schrems said, since Facebook says California law governs its terms of service.
A specialist financier will bear the legal costs if Schrems loses the case and will take 20 percent of the damages if he wins, meaning users can join the case at no financial risk.
Schrems himself is not charging a fee but stands to win 500 euros, like the other claimants.
($1 = 0.7473 Euros)
(Editing by Larry King)