Facebook Inc was accused of Big Brother-style snooping on internet users in a fresh attack on the social network by Belgium’s data privacy watchdog. The regulator sought a court order on Thursday forcing Facebook to stop any collection of data for advertising purposes and the provision of “misleading” information to users, under the threat of a 250,000 euro ($296,000) daily penalty. The company said it disagreed with the allegations.
“What Facebook is doing is unprecedented in monitoring the browsing habits” of millions of people in Belgium, regardless of whether they are signed up to the service, Ruben Roex, a lawyer for the regulator who works at law firm Time.Lex, told a Brussels court. “Facebook systematically collects data without any action by the user, which users didn’t consent to, or which wasn’t clarified to the users.”
Facebook has been a target for Belgium’s data protection commission since at least 2015, when a court ordered it to stop storing non-users’ personal data. While the US tech giant won on appeal last year, Thursday’s hearing is the first in a European court to go to the heart of the company’s use of technology deemed to be essential to its proper functioning.
The operator of the world’s largest social network uses technological means, such as cookies, pixels or so-called plug-ins underpinning its iconic “Like” button, that are “very invasive” and are able to stay on people’s computers for as long as two years, the court was told. The regulator said it was “striking” that similar techniques were used to also track non-users for commercial purposes.
“That’s our biggest concern,” Willem Debeuckelaere, president of the Belgian data protection commission, said in an interview at the court after the hearing. “We are talking now about practically the whole Belgian population who use the internet.” Belgian has a population of about 11.3 million people. Users who increasingly depend on Facebook to stay connected to peers, can only sign up if they “consent to everything or nothing,” Roex said. Facebook “is de facto asking for a blanket consent to monitor your browsing behavior and that goes way, way too far.”
Facebook, whose lawyers will present their defense in court on Friday, said in a statement it disagrees with the Belgian watchdog’s claims and that ‘putting people in control of their privacy is at the heart of everything we do’. “Over recent years, we’ve made our policies clearer and more user-friendly to help people in Belgium and all over the world understand how we use information and cookies to make Facebook better,” the Menlo-Park, California-based company said in the statement. “The cookies and pixels we use are industry standard and enable hundreds of thousands of business and publishers to serve ads on and off Facebook.”
Facebook, whose European base is in Ireland, said it remains open to “discussing key elements with them and the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.” Facebook has been under scrutiny by other European regulators. The company earlier this year agreed under Dutch pressure to stop targeting ads based on users’ sexual orientation as European regulators revealed a concerted clampdown on some of the social network’s data practices. This came on top of a maximum fine of 150,000 euros by France’s privacy regulator for combining user data to display targeted advertising and “illegal tracking” via cookies of what users do on and off the site.