Facebook is trampling on European privacy laws, says Belgian watchdog, and citizens should take action

Internet users should install software to keep themselves from the site’s tracking tools, even if they’re not on Facebook, watchdog says

Andrew Griffin
Monday 18 May 2015 11:09
A photo taken on May 16, 2012 shows a computer screen displaying the logo of social networking site Facebook reflected in a window before the Beijing skyline
A photo taken on May 16, 2012 shows a computer screen displaying the logo of social networking site Facebook reflected in a window before the Beijing skyline

Facebook is scoffing at European privacy laws by tracking people, and they should take action to ensure that they are safe from its surveillance, the Belgian government’s privacy watchdog has said.

Facebook will not reveal how it uses data, the committee said. As such, all internet users should install software to stop the site tracking them, whether they use Facebook or not, it said, since most internet users are affected by the tracking.

The Belgian government has been working with its counterparts across Europe to try and find out more about the site’s privacy rules.

The show of strength from the Belgian regulator, which does not have the power to levy fines, highlights a growing willingness across the 28-member bloc to ensure big U.S. tech companies abide by European laws.

"Facebook tramples on European and Belgian privacy laws", the Commission said in a statement on Friday after analysing changes the company made to its privacy policies in January.

It said Facebook had refused to recognise Belgian and other European Union national jurisdictions, with the company insisting it was subject only to the law in Ireland, the site of its European headquarters.

"Facebook has shown itself particularly miserly in giving precise answers," the watchdog said, adding that the results of the study by a group of researchers were "disconcerting".

A Facebook spokeswoman questioned the Belgians' authority but said it would review the study's recommendations with the Irish data protection commissioner: "We work hard to make sure people have control over what they share and with whom."

"Facebook is already regulated in Europe and complies with European data protection law, so the applicability of the CBPL's efforts are unclear," she said.

Ireland has come under criticism from EU states for policies some say are soft on the multinational companies Dublin wants to attract, whether on data protection or corporate taxation.

The Commission said Facebook would not explain in detail how it uses data it collects and highlighted problems with plug-ins such as Facebook's "like" button, which it said affects many who do not have an account with the social network.

Facebook is among a number of firms under fire in Europe over how it uses data it collects. It places tracking "cookies" when anyone visits a Facebook page, meaning it can track the online activities of a huge number of non-customers. Facebook later said this was a bug and it is working to fix it.

Google has been forced to change its privacy policies following investigations by several European authorities.

A year ago, the EU's highest court delivered a landmark judgment ordering Google to remove links to outdated information from searches for people's names, saying Google's Spanish division meant it had to abide by Spanish law.

More broadly, the European Commission launched an anti-trust case against Google last month and is studying whether to pursue German and French proposals for an Europe-wide regulator for Internet platforms.

EU competition authorities are also probing Apple and Amazon over low tax deals with Ireland and Luxembourg.

Some European politicians, angered by revelations of U.S. espionage activities in Europe, say U.S. firms are too dominant, discouraging local start-ups and jeopardising privacy laws set up in response to 20th-century abuses by authoritarian leaders.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who is trying to negotiate a landmark transatlantic free trade deal with the EU, complained this year that Europe appeared to be throwing up protectionist barriers to successful U.S. technology firms.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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