Fifty Shades of (Facebook) Blue – ECJ Renders Decision on Consumer Jurisdiction and Assigned Claims in Case C-498/16 Schrems v Facebook
Written by Tobias Lutzi, DPhil Candidate and Stipendiary Lecturer at the University of Oxford.
Yesterday, the ECJ has rendered its decision in Case C-498/16 Maximilian Schrems v Facebook Ireland Limited. The case will be of interest to many readers of this blog as its facts are not only closely linked to the ECJ’s well-known decision in Case C-362/14 Schrems but also could have come straight out of a conflict-of-laws textbook.
Maximilian Schrems has been litigating against Facebook and the way in which the company uses the personal data of its users since 2011, when he first submitted a range of complaints to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. In 2013, he submitted another complaint, which ultimately lead to the annulment of the ‘Safe Harbour’ framework between the EU and the US in the aforementioned decision; the proceedings continued with a reformulated version of this complaint and have recently been referred to the ECJ for a second time. Over the course of this litigation, Schrems built a reputation as a privacy activist, publishing two books, giving talks and lectures, and founding a non-profit organisation that uses ‘targeted and strategic litigation’ to enforce privacy and data protection laws across Europe.
The proceedings that gave raise to yesterday’s decision by the ECJ are formally unrelated to the aforementioned litigation. In 2014, Schrems set out to bring a ‘class action’ against Facebook for numerous violations of privacy and data protection laws. For this purpose, 25,000 Facebook users assigned their claims to him. Only eight of these claims, regarding Schrems’ own Facebook account and Facebook ‘page’ as well as the accounts of seven other users from Austria, Germany, and India, formed the object of the present proceedings. The claims were brought at Schrems’ domicile in Vienna, Austria, based on the special head of jurisdiction for consumer contracts in Art 16(1) Brussels I (= Art 18(1) of the recast Regulation).
The proceedings raised two separate questions, which the Austrian Oberster Gerichtshof ultimately referred to the ECJ:
- Can Schrems still be considered a consumer in the sense of Art 15(1) Brussels I, despite his continued activism and professional interest in the claims?
- If so, can he also rely on the privilege of Art 16(1) Brussels I regarding claims that have been assigned to him by other consumers who are domiciled in (a) the same EU Member State; (b) another Member State; (c) a non-member State?
Following the Advocate General’s opinion (reported here), the Court answered the first question in the positive (I.) and the second one in the negative (II.). Both answers are testimony to a nuanced interpretation of the special rules of jurisdiction for consumer contracts (III.)
I. The Consumer Exception
According to the ECJ’s well-known decisions in Case C-269/95 Benincasa and Case C-464/01 Gruber, the assessment of whether a party is a ‘consumer’ in the sense of Art 15(1) Brussels I does not depend on their subjective qualities but on the ‘the position of the person concerned in a particular contract’ (Benincasa, ), which must have been ‘concluded for the purpose of satisfying an individual’s own needs in terms of private consumption’ (ibid, ); where a contract has been concluded for a purpose that is partly private and partly professional, the professional aspect of it must be ‘so slight as to be marginal’ for the contract to still fall under the provision (Gruber, ).
In the present case, this definition raised two questions. The Court first had to decide whether the assessment was to be made only at the moment when the contract was originally concluded or whether subsequent changes of circumstances must also be taken into account. It held that
 … a user of [a digital social network] may, in bringing an action, rely on his status as a consumer only if the predominately non-professional use of those services, for which the applicant initially concluded a contract, has not subsequently become predominately professional.
Second, the Court had to decide whether this was the case for Schrems, who had originally entered into a contract with Facebook for private purposes but subsequently developed a professional activity involving litigation against Facebook. According to the Court,
 … neither the expertise which [a] person may acquire in the field covered by those services nor his assurances given for the purposes of representing the rights and interests of the users of those services can deprive him of the status of a ‘consumer’ within the meaning of Article 15 [Brussels I].
 Indeed, an interpretation of the notion of ‘consumer’ which excluded such activities would have the effect of preventing an effective defence of the rights that consumers enjoy in relation to their contractual partners who are traders or professionals, including those rights which relate to the protection of their personal data. …
Interestingly, the Court put little emphasis on the possible distinction between Schrems’ private Facebook ‘profile’ and his arguably professional Facebook ‘page’ (see –). Instead, it seemed to generally exclude ‘representing the rights and interests of the users’ of a particular service from the range of professional activities that might prevent the contract for this service from being considered a consumer contract. The Court explicitly linked this interpretation to the objective of ensuring a high level of consumer protection in Art 169 TFEU. Thus, its decision might not even have been different had Schrems joined Facebook with the sole aim of enforcing his (and other users’) rights. This way, the Court effectively sidestepped the problems created by the increasingly wide range of uses to which social media and other online platform accounts can be put, which the Advocate General had so colourfully described as ‘fifty shades of (Facebook) blue’ (Opinion, ) – and which, for the time being, remain unaddressed.
II. Jurisdiction for Assigned Claims
With regard to using the second alternative of Art 16(1) Brussels I to bring claims that have been assigned to the claimant by other consumers at the claimant’s domicile, the Court held:
 The rules on jurisdiction laid down, as regards consumer contracts, in Article 16(1) of the regulation apply, in accordance with the wording of that provision, only to an action brought by a consumer against the other party to the contract, which necessarily implies that a contract has been concluded by the consumer with the trader or professional concerned ….
 … [T]he assignment of claims cannot, in itself, have an impact on the determination of the court having jurisdiction …. It follows that the jurisdiction of courts other than those expressly referred to by Regulation No 44/2001 cannot be established through the concentration of several claims in the person of a single applicant. … [A]n assignment of claims such as that at issue in the main proceedings cannot provide the basis for a new specific forum for a consumer to whom those claims have been assigned.
This interpretation seems to align well with earlier decisions by the Court, according to which the special head of jurisdiction in Art 16(1) Brussels I is only available personally to the consumer who is party to the consumer contract in question (Case C-89/91 Shearson Lehman Hutton, ; Case C-167/00 Henkel), ), and according to which the assignment of a claim does not affect international jurisdiction under the Brussels I Regulation (Case C-352/13 CDC Hydrogene Peroxide, –).
An interesting, and arguably unfortunate, side effect of this restrictive interpretation is that it may even exclude the consolidation of the claims of other Austrian consumers in the same forum, considering that the second alternative of Art 16(1) does not only contain a rule of international jurisdiction but also determines local (internal) jurisdiction. In this regard, the Advocate General argued that an additional forum in which such consumer claims could be brought could be created under national law (Opinion, ), a proposition that does not appear easily reconcilable with the clear wording of Art 16(1).
Contrary to the claimant’s press release, though, the fact that a consumer is not allowed to avail him- or herself of the privilege in Art 16(1) Brussels I in order to bring the claims 25,000 other consumers that have been assigned to him at his or her domicile does not mean that company’s can ‘divide and conquer’ and ‘block enforcement of consumer rights’. A claimant is free to rely on the first alternative of Art 16(1) Brussels I (which mirrors Art 2(1)) and bring all claims in the defendant’s Member State of domicile, the procedural law of which will then decide on whether the claims may be consolidated.
III. A Nuanced Approach to the Consumer Exception
What seems to emerge from the decision is a nuanced approach to the special provisions for consumer contracts. The Court applies a rather flexible interpretation to Art 15(1) Brussels I, allowing for changes of circumstances to be taken into account but also distinguishing the enforcement of (consumer) rights from other types of professional activities. At the same time, it interprets the special head of jurisdiction in Art 16(1) restrictively, limiting the privilege to each individual consumer and excluding the possibility of other consumers assigning their claims to one who is domiciled in what may appear as a more favourable forum.
Of course, there may well be strong arguments for the existence of such a possibility, especially in cases where each individual claim is too small to justify litigation but the sum of them is not. But it seems questionable whether Art 16(1) Brussels I would be the right instrument to create such a mechanism of collective redress – and, indeed, whether it should be the Court’s role to implement it.
Sharia law in Greece: Blending European values with Islamic tradition
The Hellenic Republic is the sole EU Member State which provides for the application of Sharia law in its territory for more than a century. A recent amendment is granting Greek Moslems the right to opt-out, and resort to domestic civil law. At the same time, the new law respects the right to opt-in for the application of Sharia law, upon the condition of mutual agreement between the parties.
Law 4511/2018 was enacted on January 15. It contains only one article (the second simply declares that the law will be in force upon publication in the State Gazette), which amends the previous status of Sharia courts in Greece. A new Paragraph (4) is added to Art. 5 Law 1920/1991. By virtue of the new provision, the jurisdiction of the Mufti becomes the exception, whereas (until today) it was the rule for Greek Moslems living in the region of (Western) Thrace. The Mufti has jurisdiction for a vast number of family and succession matters, which are listed under Article 5.2 Law 1920/1991. A prerequisite is that the parties have submitted the above matters to Sharia law.
The new law grants the right to each party to seek Justice before domestic courts, and in accordance with Greek substantive and procedural law. The Mufti may exercise jurisdiction only if both parties file an application for this cause. Once the case is submitted to the Mufti, the jurisdiction of national courts is irrevocably excluded.
In addition, the new law paves the path for a more structured procedure before the Mufti: A drafting Committee will be authorized to prepare a decree, which will shape (for the first time) the Rules and Regulations of the Mufti ‘courts’. Signs of a formalized process are already clearly visible in the new law (Article 4.b).
Inheritance matters are also regulated by the new legislation: In principle they are subjected to Greek law, unless the testator solemnly states before a notary public his wish to submit succession matters to Sharia law. A parallel application of Greek and Sharia law is not permitted. However, revocation of the testator’s declaration is allowed, pursuant to Greek succession law provisions embedded in the Civil Code.
The new law has certainly conflict of laws ramifications too, most notably in light of the recent Sahyouni case of the CJEU. In this respect it is important to underline that all decisions rendered by the Mufti are passing through a hybrid process of domestic exequatur, which is rudimentarily regulated under Article 5.3 Law 1920/1991. Failure to submit the Mufti decisions to domestic courts’ scrutiny, deprives them of res iudicata and enforceability. Hence, EU Member States courts, whenever confronted with a request to recognize or enforce Mufti decisions within their jurisdiction, will always have to examine whether a Greek court has granted full faith and credit to the Mufti’s ruling.
Japanese Supreme Court Renders Decision on Hague Abduction Convention
On December 21, 2017, the Japanese Supreme Court rendered a decision on the Hague Abduction Convention. The Court upheld a lower court decision in favor of the Japanese mother, even though she had turned back on her promise to return the kids from a visit to Japan, and even though that same court had earlier issued a return order in favor of the American father. The matter had received international press attention, and even a Congressional subcommittee hearing.
Japan had long refused to join the Hague Convention, and when it did, in 2014, critical observers already expected that courts would find ways to undermine it. Those observers see themselves vindicated.
Colin Jones reports critically on the decision; he has previously written on Japan’s joining the Convention and on reluctance to enforce it. Useful background from the Law Library of Congress is here.
Japanese accession to the Convention has been a frequent scholarly topic, both in Japan and elsewhere. Yuko Nishitani, who had already written about “International Child Abduction in Japan” in (2006) 8 Yearbook of Private International Law 125-143, and who wrote a long report (in Japanese) for the Japanese Ministry in 2010, provided a brief analysis in 2011. Dai Yokomizo discussed the accession in (2012) Revue critique 799; Jun Yokohama did so in the Mélanges van Loon (2013, pp 661-72). Vol. 57 (2014) of the Japanese Yearbook of International Law contains articles by Tatsuki Nishioka and Takako Tsujisaka, Masayuki Tanamura, Masako Murakami, Martina Erb-Klünemann, and Nigel Vaughan Lowe. Takeshi Hamano helpfully explains the Japanese reluctance with regard to the Japanese ideology of the family. Outside of Japanese authors, Barbara Stark and Paul Hanley wrote most recently in the United States; the topic is also addressed in several student notes. The accession was also discussed by Bengt Schwemann (in German) and Francisco Barberán Pelegrín (in Spanish).
Call for Abstracts on Transnational Dispute Resolution in an increasingly digitalized world.
The call for abstracts for the ‘Transnational Dispute Resolution in an Increasingly Digitalized World’ conference is now open until 1 December 2021. This online conference will be hosted by the Center for the Future of Dispute Resolution at Ghent University on Thursday 24 March 2022.
The increased digitalization in the field dispute resolution, which received a boost from the Covid-19 pandemic, raises a number of important questions in terms of privacy, cybersecurity, data protection and artificial intelligence, going from rather practical concerns (how to protect the information exchanged, how to organize the taking of evidence, how to comply with the various obligations, etc.) to more fundamental inquiries (does it scare litigants off, does it foster or rather compromise efficiency, etc.).
The goal of the conference is to bring together academics, practitioners and policy makers with expertise in the field of dispute resolution (arbitration, transnational litigation, mediation, other ADR mechanisms) and technology law. That is why we are particularly (but not exclusively) interested in contributions that focus on
- Obligations of the actors of justice
- Challenges and opportunities of (partial) online proceedings
- Evidentiary issues related to cybersecurity and data protection
- The (ab)use of these instruments as a dispute resolution strategy
and discuss these forward-looking dispute resolution topics in light of the various privacy, data protection, cybersecurity and AI regulations.
Ph.D. candidates, senior researchers and legal practitioners are invited to submit an abstract (on one of the topics above or on a topic of their own choice relating to the general theme) by 1 December 2021 to Maud.Piers@ugent.be and Wannes.Vandenbussche@ugent.be. Abstracts should be no longer than 1000 words. Authors of selected abstracts will be notified by 10 January 2022.
All contributions should be in English. This online conference is intended to serve as a first opportunity to present and discuss the authors’ ideas. Publication venues for the final papers will also be explored.
Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact the two members of the organizing committee.
Second Issue of 2021’s Journal of Private International Law
The second issue of the Journal of Private International Law for 2021 was just released and it features the following articles:
Lachlan Forrester, “Resulting Trusts in Conflict of Laws: An Australian Perspective”
The common law world continues to grapple with how to properly characterise equitable doctrines in private international law. There has been extensive criticism of the existing approach to characterisation and choice of law for equity which favours separately characterising equitable obligations and applying the lex fori. Within this broader discourse, a debate is beginning to emerge around issues involving both equitable obligations and immovable property. In this early debate, two schools of thought have developed with respect to the proper characterisation and choice of law for implied or resulting trusts over immovable property. The first approach, advanced primarily by the courts, characterises the trust as an equitable obligation governed by the lex fori. The second approach, primarily endorsed by commentators, characterises the trust as an issue of immovable property governed by the lex situs. This paper, upon evaluating the lex fori and the lex situs against the underlying objectives of choice of law, rejects both approaches as unfit for purpose. Instead, it advocates a new approach to the characterisation and choice of law for resulting trusts. This paper proposes that resulting trusts be governed by the proper law of the relationship. This conception would align with the approach taken to express trusts under the Hague Trusts Convention and most effectively provides for consistency and clarity while upholding the reasonable expectations of the parties.
María Mercedes Albornoz & Sebastián Paredes, “No turning back: information and communication technologies in international cooperation between authorities”
The usefulness of ICTs is on full display when it comes to international cooperation between authorities in civil and commercial litigation. The core international conventions on cross-border cooperation (currently in force) were drafted many decades ago, when the overwhelming growth of ICTs was unimaginable. Setting the focus on Latin America, where legal regional integration has not yet reached the level attained by the European Union, this article assesses whether the selected legal sources reject, tacitly accept, or encourage the use of ICTs in international cooperation. The analysis of international conventions, some soft law instruments and domestic PIL rules supports the argument that an adequate legal framework that accepts the use of ICTs in international cooperation is necessary. Indeed, there is no turning back from the use of technologies in this field, where modern and suitable regulation would strengthen legal certainty, of utmost importance for the parties involved in cross-border litigation.
Sirko Harder, “The territorial scope of Australia’s consumer guarantee provisions”
Australian Consumer Law provides for consumer guarantees, according to which the taking of a particular action (for example, the application of due care and skill) or the presence of a particular fact (for example, a particular quality) is deemed as guaranteed where goods or services are supplied to a consumer in certain circumstances. Remedies lie against the supplier or (where goods are supplied) against the manufacturer or both. Pursuant to its application provisions, Australian Consumer Law applies to conduct outside Australia if one of several alternative criteria is satisfied. One criterion is that the defendant carried on business within Australia. There is no express requirement that the defendant’s business activities in Australia include the transaction with the plaintiff. This article argues that comity requires an implied restriction on the territorial scope of the consumer guarantee provisions, and searches for the most appropriate criterion for that purpose.
Lance Ang, “Party autonomy, venue risk and jurisdiction agreements – the Singapore position reappraised”
Party autonomy is the defining principle of private international law today. Notwithstanding its broad acceptance, what does party autonomy mean in the context of jurisdiction agreements? The lack of commercial certainty in how the agreement to “submit” to the jurisdiction of the courts in the chosen forum will be interpreted and enforced by the courts defeats the very purpose of party autonomy itself, which is the management of venue risk by commercial parties in entering into cross-border transactions. In light of recent developments, the Singapore court has blurred the distinction between exclusive and non-exclusive jurisdiction agreements by holding that the same requirement of “strong cause” applies if a party reneges on its agreement to “submit”. This is premised on the same strict contractual analysis and enforcement of both types of agreements. It is against this background that the approach of the Singapore courts in determining the exercise of their own jurisdiction under the common law will be reappraised, along with a comparison with the practice of the English courts.
Marco Giacalone, Irene Abignente & Seyedeh Sajedeh Salehi, “Small in value, important in essence: lessons learnt from a decade of implementing the European Small Claims Procedure in Italy and Belgium”
This article examines the extent to which the European Small Claims Procedure (ESCP) has served the main purpose of the EU legislature to establish a legal framework to improve access to justice for creditors of cross-border small claims through a simplified, expedited and inexpensive redress mechanism. This article first analyses the implementation of the ESCP in Italy and Belgium. These two countries were chosen because of the authors’ research on the Small Claims Analysis Net (SCAN) Project (The SCAN Project was initiated in 2018 as a two-year project with the fundamental aim of evaluating the efficiency of the European Small Claims Procedure within several EU Member States (France, Belgium, Italy, Slovenia, and Lithuania), besides raising awareness of this procedure among consumers and other judicial stakeholders. For the conducted activities as part of the SCAN project, see http://www.scanproject.eu accessed on 24 February 2021). The second part of this article deals with the impact of this regulatory instrument on access to justice for citizens, in view of the principle of judicial efficiency. Finally, this article focuses on the possibility of using this instrument for collective redress, on the one hand, and linking this procedure to online dispute resolution, on the other.
Agne Limante, “Prorogation of jurisdiction and choice of law in EU family law: navigating through the labyrinth of rules”
This article focuses on the scope of party autonomy in EU family regulations, especially in cases of marriage dissolution with an international element. Through the lens of a case study, the author analyses whether provisions allowing party autonomy in EU family regulations are consistent and wide enough to enable parties to find a solution that best fits their interests. The paper concludes that the advantages of party autonomy in private international family law outweigh the associated risks which should be mitigated by safeguarding measures.
Jan L. Neels, “Characterisation and liberative prescription (the limitation of actions) in private international law – Canadian doctrine in the Eswatini courts (the phenomenon of dual cumulation)”
The via media technique of characterisation in private international law, as proposed by the Canadian author Falconbridge, was – over a period of three decades – gradually adopted by the courts in Lesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and, more recently, Eswatini. In a particular dispute, which is used as angle of incidence for the discussion below, the High Court of Swaziland (now Eswatini) applied the rules of the lex fori pertaining to liberative prescription (the limitation of actions) against the background of the via media technique. The decision was overruled by the Supreme Court of Eswatini, which – using the same technique – applied the proper law of the contract in this regard. In this contribution, the Canadian doctrine and its application by the Eswatini and other Southern African courts is critically discussed. The scenario in the Eswatini cases provides an example of what the author calls the phenomenon of dual cumulation. He attempts to provide guidance for the development of Southern African private international law in this regard beyond the via media technique.
Richard Garnett, “Internationalism in New Zealand conflict of laws”
Internationalism has long been regarded as an important goal of any national conflict of laws system. The three main branches of the subject – jurisdiction, choice of law and recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments – should be developed in a manner sympathetic to the needs of international trade and interaction and allow for recognition of foreign interests. In exceptional cases, however, local public policy should also be available to protect private rights. Internationalism is a major theme in the recent book, The Conflict of Laws in New Zealand. This article assesses the state of internationalism in New Zealand conflict of laws and the contribution of the book to the issue.
OAS: Today webinar on updated principles on privacy and the protection of personal data – in Spanish (10 am Washington DC time)
The Organization of American States (OAS) is hosting a webinar entitled updated principles on privacy and the protection of personal data of the Inter-American Juridical Committee today at 10 am (DC time), 4 pm CEST time – in Spanish. More information is available here.