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Belgian judges demand Facebook destroy data it collected on non-users

Facebook, which faces 100 million euros in fines, defended the practice

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In Europe, where consumers are protected by tougher privacy and data regulations than they are in the United States, judges have once again ruled that Facebook is breaking the law.

A court in Belgium on Friday ordered Facebook to stop tracking and recording the browsing habits of non-users, “as it does not bring its practices in line with Belgian privacy legislation.”

The Belgium verdict follows a ruling against Facebook in Germany last Monday.  In the latter case, a Berlin judge ruled that eights clauses in Facebook’s terms of service are illegal and that Facebook’s default privacy settings do not give users adequate consent or allow them to easily opt-out.

“Facebook hides default settings that are not privacy-friendly in its privacy center and does not provide sufficient information about it when users register,” an attorney with The Federation of German Consumer Organisations,  the organization that brought the lawsuit against Facebook,  said in a statement.

Facebook says they plan to appeal the Berlin court’s decision.

Facebook ordered to publicize judgment

In the Belgian verdict, judges ordered Facebook to destroy data that they determined was “illegally obtained” and publicize the court’s unflattering findings about itself.

The judges not only demanded that Facebook publish “the entire 84-page judgment on its website,” but also stipulated that Facebook publish a portion of the judgement in Dutch-language and French-language Belgian newspapers.  

Facebook, which has so far given no indication that it plans to follow the order, faces fines of 250,000 euros a day or a max-out of 100 million euros for not complying.

“The cookies and pixels we use are industry standard technologies and enable hundreds of thousands of businesses to grow their businesses and reach customers across the EU,” Facebook’s public policy spokesman Richard Allan told TechCrunch in a statement.

“We require any business that uses our technologies to provide clear notice to end-users, and we give people the right to opt-out of having data collected on sites and apps off Facebook being used for ads.”

Tracks non-users

Facebook’s use of tracking codes through social plug-ins, commonly known as “cookies,” allows the social media giant to sell targeted advertising. The cookies work by collecting the browsing habits of consumers, even those who do not use the social media site or who have cancelled their accounts.

“This does not only concern Facebook users, but almost all internet users in Belgium and Europe,” Belgium's Privacy Commission, the agency that filed suit against Facebook, explains on its website.

Belgian watchdogs have been fighting the practice since 2015 with a civil suit and subsequent judgement which orders Facebook to stop invisibly tracking consumers or face hefty fines. But Facebook fought the ruling  with the argument that the Belgian courts did not have jurisdiction over its business because Facebook’s Europe office is headquartered in Ireland.

Facebook’s appeals have been repeatedly shot down by the Belgian courts trying to crack down on the company. Much like the recent ruling in Germany, a report commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Commission in 2015 determined that Facebook’s privacy settings do not give users informed consent and that its terms of service violate European consumer privacy laws.

Higher European standards irk companies

While Facebook does allow users to opt-out of the tracking cookies, that this option is only available for people with a Facebook account,  not non--users. “The current practice does not meet the requirements for legally valid consent,” the Belgian Privacy Commission report said.

The European Union considers data protection to be a fundamental right and places broad regulations on the tech, financial, and advertising industries over how they handle data.

But tech giants have bristled at European attempts to regulate data collection and other aspects of their businesses. Last summer, European regulators fined Google a record 2.4 billion euros after finding it was manipulating search results in a manner that promotes its own shopping services over competitors. It was the largest antitrust fine implemented to date by the European Union.

Google responded by offering concessions, such as opening its “shopping” search results to competitors, but it also appealed the ruling in September.

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