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Belgian research report claims Facebook tracks the internet use of everyone

A report published by researchers at two Belgian universities claims that Facebook engages in massive tracking of not only its users but also people who have no Facebook account. The report also identifies a number of other violations of EU law.

A report published by researchers at two Belgian universities claims that Facebook engages in massive tracking of not only its users but also people who have no Facebook account. The report also identifies a number of other violations of EU law.

When Facebook announced, in late 2014, that it would revise its Data Use Policy (DUP) and Terms of Services effective from 30 January 2015, a European Task Force, led by the Data Protection Agencies of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, was formed to analyse the new policies and terms.

In Belgium, the State Secretary for Privacy, Bart Tommelein, had urged the Belgian Privacy Commission to start an investigation into Facebook's privacy policy, which led to the commissioning of the draft report that has now been published. The report concludes that Facebook is acting in violation of applicable European legislation and that "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".

The main findings of the report can be summarised as follows:

Tracking through social plug-ins

The researchers found that whenever a user visits a non-Facebook website, Facebook will track that user by default, unless he or she takes steps to opt-out. The report concludes that this default opt-out approach is not in line with the opt-in requirements laid down in the E-privacy Directive.

As far as non-users of Facebook are concerned, the researchers' findings confirm previous investigations, most notably in Germany, that Facebook places a cookie each time a non-user visits a third-party website which contains a Facebook social plug-in such as the Like-button. Moreover, this cookie is placed regardless of whether the non-user has clicked on that Like button or not. Considering that Facebook does not provide any of this information to such non-users, and that the non-user is not requested to consent to the placing of such cookie, this can also be considered a violation of the E-privacy Directive.

Finally, the report found that both users and non-users who decide to use the opt-out mechanism offered by Facebook receive a cookie during this very opt-out process. This cookie, which has a default duration of two years, enables Facebook to track the user or non-user across all websites that contain its social plug-ins.

Other data protection issues identified

In addition to a number of consumer protection law issues, the report also covers the following topics relating to data protection:

    • Consent: The researchers are of the opinion that Facebook provides only very limited and vague information and that for many data uses, the only choice for users is to simply "take-it-or-leave-it". This is considered to be a violation of the principle that in order for consent to be valid, it should be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous as set-out in the Article 29 Working Party's Opinion on consent (WP 187).

 

    • Privacy settings: The report further states that the current default settings (opt-out mechanism) remain problematic, not in the least because "users cannot exercise meaningful control over the use of their personal information by Facebook or third parties" which gives them "a false sense of control".

 

    • Location data: Finally, the researchers consider that Facebook should offer more granular in-app settings for the sharing of location data, and should provide more detailed information about how, when and why it processes location data. It should also ensure it does not store the location data for longer than is strictly necessary.



Conclusion

The findings of this report do not come as a surprise. Indeed, most of the alleged areas of non-compliance have already been the object of discussions in past years and some have already been investigated by other privacy regulators (see e.g. the German investigations around the 'like' button).

The real question now surrounds what action the Belgian Privacy Commission will take on the basis of this report.

On the one hand, as of late, data protection enforcement has been put high on the agenda in Belgium. It seems the Belgian Privacy Commission is more determined than ever to show that its enforcement strategy has changed. This can also be situated in the context of recent muscular declarations from the State Secretary of Privacy that companies like Snapchat and Uber must be investigated to ensure they comply with EU data protection law.

Facebook, on the other hand, questions the authority of the Belgian Privacy Commission to conduct such an investigation, stating that only the Irish DPA is competent to discuss their privacy policies. Facebook has also stated that the report contains factual inaccuracies and expressed regret that the organisation was not contacted by the researchers.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the discussions between Facebook and the Belgian Privacy Commission develop. The President of the Belgian Privacy Commission has declared a number of times that it will not hesitate to take legal action against Facebook if the latter refuses to implement the changes for which Privacy Commission is asking.

This could potentially lead to Facebook being prosecuted, although it is more likely that it will be forced to accept a criminal settlement. In 2011, following the Privacy Commission's investigation into Google Street View, Google accepted to pay 150.000 EUR as part of a criminal settlement with the public prosecutor.

Will no doubt be continued…

 

 

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