Almost one decade ago, disparate efforts began in the European Union to change the way the world thinks about online privacy.
One effort focused on legislation, pulling together lawmakers from 28 member-states to discuss, draft, and deploy a sweeping set of provisions that, today, has altered how almost every single international company handles users’ personal information. The finalized law of that effort—the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—aims to protect the names, addresses, locations, credit card numbers, IP addresses, and even, depending on context, hair color, of EU citizens, whether they’re customers, employees, or employers of global organizations.
The second effort focused on litigation and public activism, sparking a movement that has raised at least nearly half a million dollars to fund consumer-focused lawsuits meant to uphold the privacy rights of EU citizens, and has resulted in the successful dismantling of a 15-year-old intercontinental data-transfer agreement for its failure to protect EU citizens’ personal data. The 2015 ruling sent shockwaves through the security world, and forced companies everywhere to scramble to comply with a regulatory system thrown into flux.
The law was passed. The movement is working. And while countless individuals launched investigations, filed lawsuits, participated in years-long negotiations, published recommendations, proposed regulations, and secured parliamentary approval, we can trace these disparate yet related efforts back to one man—Maximilian Schrems.
Remarkably, as the two efforts progressed separately, they began to inform one another. Today, they work in tandem to protect online privacy. And businesses around the world have taken notice.
The impact of GDPR today
A Portuguese hospital, a German online chat platform, and a Canadian political consultancy all face GDPR-related fines issued last year. In January, France’s National Data Protection Commission (CNIL) hit Google with a 50-million-euros penalty—the largest GDPR fine to date—after an investigation found a “lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding the ads personalization.”
The investigation began, CNIL said, after it received legal complaints from two groups: the nonprofit La Quadrature du Net and the non-governmental organization None of Your Business. None of Your Business, or noyb for short, counts Schrems as its honorary director. In fact, he helped crowdfund its launch last year.
Outside the European Union, lawmakers are watching these one-two punches as a source of inspiration.
When testifying before Congress about a scandal involving misused personal data, the 2016 US presidential election, and a global disinformation campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly heard calls to regulate his company and its data-mining operations.
“The question is no longer whether we need a federal law to protect consumers privacy,” said Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota. “The question is what shape will that law take.”
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia put it differently: “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”
A new sheriff comes to town
In 2011, Schrems was a 23-year-old law student from Vienna, Austria, visiting the US to study abroad. He enrolled in a privacy seminar at the Santa Clara University School of Law where, along with roughly 22 other students, he learned about online privacy law from one of the field’s notable titans.
Professor Dorothy Glancy practiced privacy law before it had anything to do with the Internet, cell phones, or Facebook. Instead, she navigated the world of government surveillance, wiretaps, and domestic spying. She served as privacy counsel to one of the many subcommittees that investigated the Watergate conspiracy.
Later, still working for the subcommittee, she examined the number of federal agency databases that contained people’s personally identifiable information. She then helped draft the Privacy Act of 1974, which restricted how federal agencies collected, used, and shared that information. It is one of the first US federal privacy laws.
The concept of privacy has evolved since those earlier days, Glancy said. It is no longer solely about privacy from the government. It is also about privacy from corporations.
“Over time, it’s clear that what was, in the 70s, a privacy problem in regards to Big Brother and the federal government, has now gotten so that a lot of these issues have to do with the private [non-governmental] collection of information on people,” Glancy said.
In 2011, one of the biggest private, non-governmental collectors of that information was Facebook. So, when Glancy’s class received a guest presentation from Facebook privacy lawyer Ed Palmieri, Schrems paid close attention, and he didn’t like what he heard.
For starters, Facebook simply refused to heed Europe’s data privacy laws.
Speaking to 60 Minutes, Schrems said: “It was obviously the case that ignoring European privacy laws was the much cheaper option. The maximum penalty, for example, in Austria, was 20,000 euros. So, just a lawyer telling you how to comply with the law was more expensive than breaking it.”
Further, according to Glancy, Palmieri’s presentation showed that Facebook had “absolutely no understanding” about the relationship between an individual’s privacy and their personal information. This blind spot concerned Schrems to no end. (Palmieri could not be reached for comment.)
“There was no understanding at all about what privacy is in the sense of the relationship to personal information, or to human rights issues,” Glancy said. “Max couldn’t quite believe it. He didn’t quite believe that Facebook just didn’t understand.”
So Schrems investigated. (Schrems did not respond to multiple interview requests and he did not respond to an interview request forwarded by his colleagues at Noyb.)
Upon returning to Austria, Schrems decided to figure out just how much information Facebook had on him. The answer was astonishing: Facebook sent Schrems a 1,200-page PDF that detailed his location history, his contact information, information about past events he attended, and his private Facebook messages, including some he thought he had deleted.
Shocked, Schrems started a privacy advocacy group called “Europe v. Facebook” and uploaded redacted versions of his own documents onto the group’s website. The revelations touched a public nerve—roughly 40,000 Europeans soon asked Facebook for their own personal dossiers.
The Irish Data Protection Commissioner rolled Schrems’ complaints into an already-running audit into Facebook, and, in December 2011, released non-binding guidance for the company. Facebook’s lawyers also met with Schrems in Vienna for six hours in February 2012.
And then, according to Schrems’ website, only silence and inaction from both Facebook and the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s Office followed. There were no meaningful changes from the company. And no stronger enforcement from the government.
Frustrating as it may have been, Schrems kept pressing. Luckily, according to Glancy, he was just the right man for the job.
“He is innately curious,” Glancy said. “Once he sees something that doesn’t quite seem right, he follows it up to the very end.”
Safe Harbor? More like safety not guaranteed
On June 5, 2013, multiple newspapers exposed two massive surveillance programs in use by the US National Security Agency. One program, then called PRISM (now called Downstream), implicated some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Facebook.
Schrems responded by doing what he did best: He filed yet another complaint against Facebook—his 23rd—with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. Facebook Ireland, Schrems claimed, was moving his data to Facebook Inc. in the US, where, according to The Guardian, the NSA enjoyed “mass access” to user data. Though Facebook and other companies denied their participation, Schrems doubted the accuracy of these statements.
“There is probable cause to believe that ‘Facebook Inc’ is granting the NSA mass access to its servers that goes beyond merely individual requests based on probable cause,” Schrems wrote in his complaint. “The statements by ‘Facebook Inc’ are in light of the US laws not credible, because ‘Facebook Inc’ is bound by so-called ‘gag orders.’”
Schrems argued that, when his data left EU borders, EU law required that it receive an “adequate level of protection.” Mass surveillance, he said, violated that.
The Irish Data Protection Commissioner disagreed. The described EU-to-US data transfer was entirely legal, the Commissioner said, because of Safe Harbor, a data privacy carve-out approved much earlier.
In 1995, the EU adopted the Data Protection Directive, which, up until 2018, regulated the treatment of EU citizens’ personal data. In 2000, the European Commission approved an exception to the law: US companies could agree to a set of seven principles, called the Safe Harbor Privacy Principles, to allow for data transfer from the EU to the US. This self-certifying framework proved wildly popular. For 15 years, nearly every single company that moved data from the EU to the US relied, at least briefly, on Safe Harbor.
Unsatisfied, Schrems asked the Irish High Court to review the Data Protection Commissioner’s inaction. In October 2013, the court agreed. Schrems celebrated, calling out the Commissioner’s earlier decision.
“The [Data Protection Commissioner] simply wanted to get this hot potato off his table instead of doing his job,” Schrems said in a statement at the time. “But when it comes to the fundamental rights of millions of users and the biggest surveillance scandal in years, he will have to take responsibility and do something about it.”
Less than one year later, the Irish High Court came back with its decision—the Court of Justice for the European Union would need to review Safe Harbor.
On March 24, 2015, the Court heard oral arguments for both sides. Schrems’ legal team argued that Safe Harbor did not provide adequate protection for EU citizen’s data. The European Commission, defending the Irish DPC’s previous decision, argued the opposite.
When asked by the Court how EU citizens might best protect themselves from the NSA’s mass surveillance, the lawyer arguing in favor of Safe Harbor made a startling admission:
“You might consider closing your Facebook account, if you have one,” said Bernhard Schima, advocate for the European Commission, all but admitting that Safe Harbor could not protect EU citizens from overseas spying. When asked more directly if Safe Harbor provided adequate protection of EU citizens’ data, the European Commission’s legal team could not guarantee it.
On September 23, 2015, the Court’s advocate general issued his initial opinion—Safe Harbor, in light of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, was invalid.
“Such mass, indiscriminate surveillance is inherently disproportionate and constitutes an unwarranted interference with the rights [to respect for privacy and family life and protection of personal data,]” the opinion said.
Less than two weeks later, the entire Court of Justice agreed.
Ever a lawyer, Schrems responded to the decision with a 5,500-word blog post (assigned a non-commercial Creative Commons public copyright license) exploring current data privacy law, Safe Harbor alternatives, company privacy policies, a potential Safe Harbor 2.0, and mass surveillance. Written with “limited time,” Schrems thanked readers for pointing out typos.
The General Data Protection Regulation
Before the Court of Justice struck down Safe Harbor, before Edward Snowden shed light on the NSA’s mass surveillance, before Schrems received a 1,200-page PDF documenting his digital life, and before that fateful guest presentation in professor Glancy’s privacy seminar at Santa Clara University School of Law, a separate plan was already under way to change data privacy.
In November 2010, the European Commission, which proposes legislation for the European Union, considered a new policy with a clear goal and equally clear title: “A comprehensive approach on personal data protection in the European Union.”
Many years later, it became GDPR.
During those years, the negotiating committees looked to Schrems’ lawsuits as highly informative, Glancy said, because Schrems had successfully proven the relationship between the European Charter of Fundamental Human Rights and its application to EU data privacy law. Ignoring that expertise would be foolish.
“Max [Schrems] was a part of just about all the committees working on [GDPR]. His litigation was part of what motivated the adoption of it,” Glancy said. “The people writing the GDPR would consult him as to whether it would solve his problems, and parts of the very endless writing process were also about what Max [Schrems] was not happy with.”
Because Schrems did not respond to multiple interview requests, it is impossible to know his precise involvement in GDPR. His Twitter and blog have no visible, corresponding entries about GDPR’s passage.
However, public records show that GDPR’s drafters recommended several areas of improvement in the year before the law passed, including clearer definitions of “personal information,” stronger investigatory powers to the EU’s data regulators, more direct “data portability” to allow citizens to directly move their data from one company to another while also obtaining a copy of that data, and better transparency in how EU citizens’ online profiles are created and targeted for ads.
GDPR eventually became a sweeping set of 99 articles that tightly fasten the collection, storage, use, transfer, and disclosure of data belonging to all EU citizens, giving those citizens more direct control over how their data is treated.
For example, citizens have the “right to erasure,” in which they can ask a company to delete the data collected on them. Citizens also have the “right to access,” in which companies must provide a copy of the data collected on a person, along with information about how the data was collected, who it is shared with, and why it is processed.
Approved by a parliamentary vote in April 2016, GDPR took effect two years later.
GDPR’s immediate and future impact
Since then, compliance looks less like emails and more like penalties.
Early this year, Google received its €50 million ($57 million) fine out of France. Last year, a Portuguese hospital received a €400,000 fine for two alleged GDPR violations. Because of a July 2018 data breach, a German chat platform got hit with a €20,000 fine. And in the reported first-ever GDPR notice from the UK, Canadian political consultancy—and murky partner to Cambridge Analytica—AggregateIQ received a notice about potential fines of up to €20 million.
To Noyb, the fines are good news. Gaëtan Goldberg, a privacy lawyer with the NGO, said that data privacy law compliance has, for many years, been lacking. Hopefully GDPR, which Goldberg called a “major step” in protecting personal data, can help turn that around, he said.
“[We] hope to see strong enforcement measures being taken by courts and data protection authorities around the EU,” Goldberg said. “The fine of 50 [million] euros the French CNIL imposed on Google is a good start in this direction.”
The future of data privacy
Last year, when Senator Warner told Zuckerberg that “the era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” he may not have realized how quickly that would come true. In July 2018, California passed a statewide data privacy law called the California Consumer Privacy Act. Months later, three US Senators proposed their own federal data privacy laws. And just this month, the Government Accountability Office recommended that Congress pass a data privacy law similar to GDPR.
Data privacy is no longer a concept. It is the law.
In the EU, that law has released a torrent of legal complaints. Hours after GDPR came into effect, Noyb lodged a series of complaints against Google, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
Goldberg said the group’s legal complaints are one component of meaningful enforcement on behalf of the government. Remember: Google’s massive penalty began with an investigation that the French authorities said started after it received a complaint from Noyb.
Separately, privacy group Privacy International filed complaints against Europe’s data-brokers and advertising technology companies, and Brave, a privacy-focused web browser, filed complaints against Google and other digital advertising companies.
Google and Facebook did not respond to questions about how they are responding to the legal complaints. Facebook also did not respond to questions about its previous legal battles with Schrems.
Electronic Frontier Foundation International Director Danny O’Brien wrote last year that, while we wait for the results of the above legal complaints, GDPR has already motivated other privacy-forward penalties and regulations around the world:
“In Italy, it was competition regulators that fined Facebook ten million euros for misleading its users over its personal data practices. Brazil passed its own GDPR-style law this year; Chile amended its constitution to include data protection rights; and India’s lawmakers introduced a draft of a wide-ranging new legal privacy framework.”
As the world moves forward, one man—the one who started it all—might be conspicuously absent. Last year, Schrems expressed a desire to step back from data privacy law. If anything, he said, it was time for others to take up the mantle.
“I know I’m going to be deeply engaged, especially at the beginning, but in the long run [Noyb] should absolutely not be Max’s personal NGO,” Schrems told The Register in a January 2018 interview. Asked to clarify about his potential future beyond privacy advocacy, Schrems said: “It’s retirement from the first line of defense, let’s put it that way… I don’t want to keep bringing cases for the rest of my life.”
Surprisingly, for all of Schrems’ public-facing and public-empowering work, his interviews and blog posts sometimes portray him as a deeply humble, almost shy individual, with a down-to-earth sense of humor, too. When asked during a 2016 podcast interview if he felt he would be remembered in the same vein as Edward Snowden, Schrems bristled.
“Not at all, actually,” Schrems said. “What I did is a very conservative approach. You go to the courts, you have your case, you bring it and you do your thing. What Edward Snowden did is a whole different ballgame. He pretty much gave up his whole life and has serious possibilities to some point end up in a US prison. The worst thing that happened to me so far was to be on that security list of US flights.”
During the same interview, Schrems also deflected his search result popularity.
“Everyone knows your name now,” the host said. “If you Google ‘Schrems,’ the first thing that comes up is ‘Max Schrems’ and your case.”
“Yeah but it’s also a very specific name, so it’s not like ‘Smith,’” Schrems said, laughing. “I would have a harder time with that name.”
If anything, the popularity came as a surprise to Schrems. Last year, in speaking to Bloomberg, he described Facebook as a “test case” when filing his original 22 complaints.
“I thought I’d write up a few complaints,” Schrems said. “I never thought it would create such a media storm.”
Glancy described Schrems’ initial investigation into Facebook in much the same way. It started not as a vendetta, she said, but as a courtesy.
“He started out with a really charitable view of [Facebook],” Glancy said. “At some level, he was trying to get Facebook to wake up and smell the coffee.”
That’s the Schrems that Glancy knows best, a multi-faceted individual who makes time for others and holds various interests. A man committed to public service, not public spotlight. A man who still calls and emails her with questions about legal strategy and privacy law. A man who drove down the California coast with some friends during spring break. Maybe even a man who is tired of being seen only as a flag-bearer for online privacy. (He describes himself on his Twitter profile as “(Luckily not only) Law, Privacy and Politics.)
“At some level, he considers himself a consumer lawyer,” Glancy said. “He’s interested in the ways in which to empower the little guy, who is kind of abused by large entities that—it’s not that they’re targeting them, it’s that they just don’t care. [The people’s] rights are not being taken account of.”
With GDPR in place, those rights, and the people they apply to, now have a little more firepower.