Belgium gets cross with Facebook

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 17, 2015

Belgium’s independent Privacy Commission has announced that it is taking Facebook to court for violations of European privacy law. The move follows the release in May of a ‘staggering’ and ‘disconcerting’ opinion report,

‘Facebook tramples on European and Belgian privacy laws… Facebook has shown itself particularly miserly in giving precise answers.

The report accuses Facebook of treating users ‘without respect’, and focuses particularly on the fact that it tracks internet users who visit Facebook pages, even if they are not members of Facebook (or are sighed out of their Facebook accounts).

‘The research results are disconcerting. Facebook disregards European and Belgian privacy legislation in several ways. In 10 chapters an equal amount of issues have been uncovered. It is the Belgian Privacy Commission’s ambition to thoroughly look into these issues. Until today, the eighth chapter – “tracking trough social plug-ins” – has been the focus of attention, because it does not only impact Facebook users but also virtually every Internet user in Belgium and Europe.

In the report, president of the Belgian privacy commission, Willem Debeuckelaere, argues that under EU law internet users must provide explicit consent before they can be tracked and their internet habits used by Facebook to serve up targeted advertising.

Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, which appears on more than 13 million websites, also comes under sharp criticism, as it allows Facebook to track visitors that never even visit its website.

The case is due to appear before a Brussels court tomorrow (Thursday). Debeuckelaere explained (in Dutch) the Privacy Commission’s decision,

‘It’s not because we want start a lawsuit over this, but we cannot continue to negotiate through other means… We want a judge to impose our recommendations. These recommendations are chiefly aimed at protecting internet users who are not Facebook members.

For its part, Facebook denies any wrongdoing, and has accused the Privacy Commission of being ‘theatrical’,

We were surprised and disappointed that, after the [Belgium privacy commission] had already agreed to meet with us on the 19 June to discuss their recommendations, they took the theatrical action of bringing Facebook Belgium to court on the day beforehand. Although we are confident that there is no merit to the [Belgium privacy commission]’s case, we remain happy to work with them in an effort to resolve their concerns, through a dialogue with us at Facebook Ireland and with our regulator, the Irish data protection commissioner.

If the case is successful, it could lead to a series of court cases in other EU countries as they follow Belgium’s lead in trying to bring Facebook to heel.

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