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Activist Took On Facebook And Won, Long Before Cambridge Analytica


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears in front of Congress today and tomorrow to explain how his company uses people's personal data and also the company's role in facilitating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Much of that debate feels like deja vu to Max Schrems.


Schrems is an Austrian lawyer. Seven years ago, he was a student, and he asked Facebook to send him all the data that they had on him for a class project. He got more than a thousand pages.

INSKEEP: And he was disturbed by how much information the company had, so he took Facebook to court in Europe and won. His victory led to new data protection rules there. Now, with U.S. lawmakers taking up a similar debate, our co-host Noel King spoke with Max Schrems via Skype.


U.S. lawmakers are going to have a chance this week to ask Mark Zuckerberg questions. What do you want them to ask him?

MAX SCHREMS: I mean, first of all, it will be very interesting to even ask why they didn't do anything when issues were raised for years and years. From an outside perspective, honestly, it's kind of interesting because a data breach like that probably reported three weeks ago, if it wouldn't have been in relation to Trump, probably no one would have paid that much attention to it.

KING: You don't think so.

SCHREMS: Because now it's like a Trump story and the question of if that was changing the election, it became suddenly a story. But technically it's not a big difference. Like, from a privacy perspective, we have thousands of apps that have the possibility to scrape the data. No one really knows who these apps were at the time. Any anonymous person could just put up an app and scrape the data. So it's very likely that we have hundreds of other apps that got the same great idea of just selling on the data. But I think in the long run, we're moving into information age, and it's going to be interesting to regulate who has power over information and who has how much power over information. Obviously, these companies have to make money some way. But the question is, how far can they go?

KING: Do you think that most Facebook users - most American Facebook users really care about protecting their data, about their privacy?

SCHREMS: I think it's generally - I don't think that's an American or European thing. There's generally - we have so much things on our minds that we do not care about things until they go wrong. And that is generally a problem with privacy because it's so complex. It's so hard to understand these systems, so we'll have to come up with reasonable regulation that makes sure that we can use these things without worrying. And that's what we do in most other cases. We have building codes to make sure that our buildings don't collapse. And you don't have to become an architect to walk into a building. And we have, like, food regulation to make sure that our food is safe.

KING: Well, it is a whole new world here. I mean, you talk about building codes. You talk about food regulation. Without getting too technical, what do you think is the best kind of regulation for dealing with Facebook and data in 2018?

SCHREMS: I'm not sure if we found the best regulation yet. The European approach right now is a tech-neutral regulation, so it's very general laws. Like, data that's not necessary has to be deleted. If you use data, you can only use it for a specific purpose. So, for example, in the Cambridge Analytica situation, if it's a test that should tell you which personality you are, you're only allowed to use the data then for this purpose and not for selling it off to someone else. So there are certain kind of very abstract rules that we introduced in Europe that I think cope with most of the issues. However, it's a very new field of law, so I think there is still a lot of possibilities to make that better.

KING: We do have a sense of at least some of what Mark Zuckerberg is going to say today. He is expected to apologize. He is expected to say that fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, that the company, Facebook, did not do enough to prevent those. He's going to say we didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. What do you think of Mark Zuckerberg's apologies so far?

SCHREMS: You know, if you apologize as much as Facebook did over the past years, there is probably a structural problem I think of getting stuff right from the beginning on. And that may be part of it. I do think, however, that the Trump election, a lot of that may have really shifted the idea in the Silicon Valley of only doing good and great to really kind of probably be a little bit more considerate about the downsides of technology as well and starting to cope with that a bit more because fundamentally a lot of these people are not very happy that Trump got elected.

KING: Are you going to watch Mark Zuckerberg's testimony?

SCHREMS: Yeah. I'll definitely going to watch it because basically the last seven years of my work were kind of pointing out these issues.

KING: You have a lot at stake tomorrow and this week too.

SCHREMS: And it's probably going to be a sit back, relax and have some popcorn (laughter) sort of situation because a lot of that has been known for a long while. I just wonder if he's still going to get away with the apology number because people that are really involved in all of these debates wonder how he could get away with that so far to just say, oh, I'm sorry, we didn't know when basically everybody knew. Like, we debated the app thing for seven hours in Vienna with representatives of Facebook six years ago and they said (ph) what Cambridge Analytica did is exactly how the system was meant to be and how this system was set up.

KING: All right. Max Schrems is a lawyer based in Vienna, Austria. He specializes in I.T. and digital privacy. Thanks, Max.

SCHREMS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.