By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The highest court in the European Union will decide on Thursday whether an Austrian privacy activist can bring a class action lawsuit against Facebook for what he says are illegal violations of the privacy of users.
Max Schrems, long a thorn in Facebook's side, is claiming 500 euros ($620.55) in damages for each of more than 25,000 signatories to his lawsuit.
He says Facebook has illegally violated the privacy rights of European users, including by helping a U.S. spy agency. Facebook has rejected his assertions, which date back to 2014, and says it has always complied with European data protection laws.
While common in the United States as a way to keep corporate behavior in check, class action lawsuits, in which claims shared by an entire class of people are heard in a single case, are rarely recognized in Europe.
Facebook says Schrems, who has published a book, delivers lectures and operates websites discussing privacy issues, has a professional interest in the case and therefore should not be treated as a consumer who can take advantage of consumer protection laws, or be able to sue on behalf of others.
In November an Advocate General at the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) said in a non-binding opinion that Schrems could not bring a class action suit on behalf of others but could sue the company in Austria on his own behalf.
Judges at the Luxembourg-based court typically follow the advice in Advocate General opinions but are not bound by them.
Schrems said Facebook's legal strategy was aimed at preventing the case from being heard.
"Facebook knows that they can’t win this case when it will be heard. Therefore, they try everything to block the lawsuit by making it economically impossible," Schrems said.
It is not the first time Schrems has faced off in court with Facebook. In 2015 he successfully challenged the legality of a commercial data transfer agreement between the EU and the United States used by more than 4,000 companies, including Facebook. After the ECJ threw out the agreement, it was replaced with a new system guaranteeing more safeguards for personal data that companies hold in the United States about Europeans.
In his case against Facebook, Schrems accuses the social network of aiding the U.S. National Security Agency to run a large-scale internet surveillance program, and of illegally tracking users' behavior.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company has always complied with European rules, and would continue to do so as they become tighter under new data protection regulations.
“Over recent years, we've made our policies clearer to help people understand how we use information. We’ve built teams of people who focus on the protection of privacy - from engineers to designers - and tools that give people choice and control,” she said.
“....Europe is already putting in place strong enforcement measures that hold Facebook and other companies accountable for privacy and data protection. We’ll comply with these new rules, just as we’ve complied with existing data protection law in Europe.”
(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Peter Graff)