Austrian student's lawsuit vs Facebook bogged down in procedure

By Shadia Nasralla and Angelika Gruber VIENNA (Reuters) - Facebook presented a long list of procedural objections to an Austrian court on Thursday trying to halt a class action lawsuit for 25,000 users that accuses the social media giant of violating their privacy. The first day of hearings began with a four-hour session in which Facebook's lawyers tried to convince the judge not to admit the suit brought by law student Max Schrems, 27, who is claiming 500 euros ($538) in damages for each user. The suit is the latest of several legal challenges in Europe and the United States to Facebook for the way it shares users' personal data with businesses or governments. Schrems has said this may become a test case for European data protection laws. "The lawsuit is inadmissible on the procedural level - the court is not responsible," Facebook's lawyer Nikolaus Pitkowitz told the judge. "It is unjustified in terms of content." Schrems accused Facebook of engaging in delaying tactics. "This is a typical strategy, because most consumers will run out of time and money," he said. The judge said a written decision on whether the court can handle the suit will come before the summer. In the first hearing, attorneys for Schrems and Facebook battled on technical grounds about whether the student has the status of a private Facebook consumer and if the 25,000 plaintiffs are legally allowed to confer their rights on him. Schrems is claiming damages for alleged data violations by Facebook, including by aiding the U.S. National Security Agency in running its PRISM program, which mined the personal data of Facebook users. "I think we can heighten data protection with this lawsuit," Schrems' lawyer Wolfram Proksch told reporters after the session. Facebook's lawyers did not address the details of the privacy concerns mentioned in his suit and declined to comment further outside of the court room. 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 also has a case pending at the European Court of Justice, financed by crowdsourcing, which mainly relates to the so-called Safe Harbor agreement governing data transfers from Europe to the United States. There, the European Data Protection Supervisor told the court that Safe Harbor needed to be changed to safeguard European consumers' rights and that corresponding requests for such changes had been made to the United States. British regulators have investigated if Facebook, with more than 1 billion users, has violated their data protection law. ($1 = 0.9286 euros) (Additional reporting by Julia Fioretti in Brussels; Editing by Tom Heneghan)