Belgian Privacy Watchdog Hits Back After Facebook Criticism

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Tit for tat argument continues as Belgian Privacy Watchdog sharply criticises Facebook and its privacy controls

The war of words between Facebook and the Belgian data protection agency continues, after the latter issued a hard hitting statement about the social network’s privacy controls.

The watchdog alleged that Facebook is trampling on European privacy laws by tracking people online without their consent and dodging questions from national regulators.

Trampling Privacy

The demand comes after damning privacy report last month commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Protection Commission (CPVP/CBPL). That report found that Facebook tracks the web browsing habits of everyone who visits its website, irrespective of whether they are Facebook users or not. It alleged that people are still tracked, even if they have explicitly opted out of tracking.

Facebook hit back at that report at the time, saying it was “wrong multiple times.”

But now the Belgian privacy watchdog has issued a new statement on the matter.

facebook-privacy-large“Facebook tramples on European and Belgian privacy laws”, it was quoted as saying by Reuters.

And it slammed Facebook’s refusal to accept the authority of the Belgian watchdog. Facebook argues that as its European HQ is based in Ireland, it is only subject to the Irish data privacy laws.

“Facebook has shown itself particularly miserly in giving precise answers,” the Belgian watchdog complained. The watchdog said that the results of its investigation were “disconcerting” and that it would take legal action if its recommendations were not followed.

It also urged Internet users to install privacy software to shield themselves from Facebook’s tracking systems, whether they have an account with the social network or not.

A Facebook spokeswoman was quoted as questioning 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,” the Facebook spokeswoman reportedly said.

“Facebook is already regulated in Europe and complies with European data protection law, so the applicability of the CBPL’s efforts is unclear,” she reportedly said.

The commission meanwhile said it would publish a second report on Facebook this year.

The first report had concluded that Facebook was tracking web browsing habits without user consent, in order to help it better target its advertising. It blamed Facebook’s use of social plug-ins namely its “like” buttons, which are now found on millions of non-Facebook websites. Essentially, Facebook places tracking cookies on users’ computers if they visit any page on the facebook.com domain, including fan pages or other pages that do not require a Facebook account to visit.

And when a user visits a third-party website that has a Facebook like button there, it detects and sends information back to Facebook – even if the user does not interact with the Like button, login, or other extension of the social media site.

Privacy Expectations

Privacy concerns at Facebook have been ongoing for a while now. Matters were not helped in early 2010, when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, said that people no longer had an expectation of privacy thanks to the increasing uptake of social networking.

The social networking giant is also facing a an ongoing privacy probe by the Dutch data protection authority, as well probes in France, Germany, and Spain. It is also currently being probed by the pan-European data protection working party.

On top of all that, Facebook is also defending itself against a lawsuit from Austrian law graduate Max Schrems. That lawsuit alleges that the company undertakes “illegal” tracking of user data under EU law. This includes Facebook’s monitoring of users when they use the social network’s “like” buttons.

Facebook has already been in court in Ireland over its data-sharing policies, and now Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), is to decide on the current data sharing agreement between America and Europe.

Facebook has (albeit reluctantly) admitted in the past that it shares the data of EU citizens with the American NSA. It said it only complies with requests when forced to by American law.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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