Australia's Facebook lawsuit over Cambridge Analytica clears major hurdle

Australia’s privacy watchdog can proceed with a Federal Court case against Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal after the High Court declined to intervene.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) originally began its investigation into Facebook in 2018, and in 2020 launched legal action against US-based Facebook Inc and Facebook Ireland over the 311,127 Australians caught up in the global data harvesting scandal. 

Since then, Facebook has progressively escalated a series of appeals over whether its US-based entity can be served with legal papers by an Australian court.

Law firms recognised early on that the jurisdictional issue could set a precedent for privacy cases filed in Australia, and flagged it as “likely to be significantly contested at any hearing”.

Facebook argued that it did not conduct business in Australia at the time more than 300,000 Australians allegedly had their privacy breached in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, because it had neither an Australian office nor staff here.

Facebook originally had its jurisdictional arguments accepted, but in February last year that was overturned by the full bench of the Federal Court.

The social media giant then sought and was granted special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia in September last year.

But the grant of special leave was yesterday revoked due to a change in court rules that came into effect in January this year.

That clears the way for the case to be heard by the Federal Court, which could expose Facebook’s US and Ireland entities to civil penalties over Cambridge Analytica.

“Today’s decision is an important step in ensuring that global digital platforms can be held to account when handling the personal information of Australians,” Australian information commissioner and privacy commissioner Angelene Falk said in a statement.

“Entities operating in Australia are accountable for breaches of Australian privacy law, and must ensure that their operations in Australia comply with that law.”

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