Belgian privacy commission report says Facebook is breaking European law

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

February 27, 2015

Whenever one takes the time to look a little more closely at Facebook’s features, one is left wondering how on earth it is legal, despite contractual consent, for them to do some of the things that they do with their website and app.

After all, if a stalker or murderer drew up a contract for his or her victims, and fooled them into signing it, at the end of the day any murder would still be illegal.  So why does Facebook appear to be able to do as it pleases, without question?

Facebook spends its time analyzing us with vocal recognition , and spotting us with facial scanners. It listens to our conversations with passive listening, and uses the GPS on our phone to pinpoint our exact location, while using our ‘likes’ to profile us with insane clarity –  Facebook is powerfully and frighteningly invasive.

In fact, if there was ever going to be a candidate for a real life ‘Big Brother’, Facebook would have to rank up there with the NSA in its ability to snoop into our lives, and most cleverly and perhaps scarily of all with Facebook (unlike the NSA’s PRISM) people opt in – they choose to be watched!

Now however, a report released by the Belgian Privacy Commission (CPP) has found that Facebook is in their opinion breaking European law. The investigation was carried out by the Centre of Interdisciplinary Law and ICT at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and was largely undertaken in reaction to Facebook’s updated policy agreement in January.

The findings of the report conclude that the updated policy agreement only expands upon older policies, and still violates European consumer protection laws, a stance which Facebook strongly denies.  From the report,

‘Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR) contains a number of provisions which do not comply with the Unfair Contract Terms Directive. These violations were already present in 2013, and they are set to persist in 2015’

One particular problem area that the report focuses on is Facebook’s use of profiling for third party advertising, in essence using one contract to get the user to agree to further ‘selling off’ of their personal details, without real consent. The report says,

‘Facebook places too much burden on its users. Users are expected to navigate Facebook’s complex web of settings in search of possible opt-outs… Facebook’s default settings related to behavioural profiling or Social Ads, for example, are particularly problematic.’

At last, it would appear that somebody is coming to consumers’ rescue, and is at least attempting to reign in Facebook’s seemingly unlimited powers. About time.

The report points out that the only way to stop the Facebook app from knowing where you are is to disable the GPS on your phone, so if you like to use the GPS to find your way around town, or to find yourself a restaurant that is nearby, or perhaps even to look for a date who lives close to you – to go to that restaurant with – then remember that if you have the Facebook app installed then Zuckerberg also knows where you are. At all times.

Also, please don’t get the idea that this is something new – the truth is that Facebook has been doing all these things for quite some time, and the January update to their user agreement simply makes these old habits clearer, a legal move that it probably hopes will stop it from getting into trouble – I suppose they expect that by being more explicit in the wording of the contract, they will get away with doing these things unquestioned. Thank goodness then, for the Belgian privacy commission!

Facebook is confident that it has done nothing wrong – after all, it’s contract was created in Ireland where its headquarters are, and where the contract was carefully put together under the guidance of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner,

‘We recently updated our terms and policies to make them more clear and concise, to reflect new product features and to highlight how we’re expanding people’s control over advertising…  We’re confident the updates comply with applicable laws. As a company with international headquarters in Dublin, we routinely review product and policy updates including this one­ with our regulator, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, who oversees our compliance with the EU Data Protection Directive as implemented under Irish law.’ ­     

For Facebook, however, the heat is most definitely on. In Holland it is already under investigation by the Data Protection Authority, who asked Facebook to delay the January policy update while regulators from around Europe, including the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, check to see if it is in compliance with European laws. This is good news for consumers who are otherwise at the whim of this corporation and its almost compulsory invasive social platform.

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