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German Court Rules Facebook’s Use of Personal Data Is Illegal

A Berlin regional court recently ruled that Facebook’s use of personal data was illegal because the social media platform did not adequately secured the informed consent of its users. A German consumer rights group, the Federal of German Consumer Organisations (vzvb) said that Facebook’s default settings and some of its terms of service were in breach of consumer law, and that the court had found parts of the consent to data usage to be invalid.  One concern highlighted by the consumer rights group was that, in Facebook’s app for smartphones, a service was pre-activated that revealed the user’s location to the person they were chatting to.  Also, in the privacy settings, ticks were already placed in boxes that allowed search engines to link to the user’s timeline, meaning that anyone would be able quickly and easily to find a user’s profile.

A week after the ruling, Facebook promised to radically overhaul its privacy settings, saying the work would prepare it for the introduction of the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).  Facebook has faced repeated attacks from Germany and other European regulators over issues ranging from perceived anti-competitive practices to alleged misuse of customer data. In October, the Article 29 Working Party (WP29) launched a task force to examine the sharing of user data between WhatsApp and Facebook, which it says does not have sufficient user consent.  “Whilst the WP29 notes there is a balance to be struck between presenting the user with too much information and not enough, the initial screen made no mention at all of the key information users needed to make an informed choice, namely that clicking the agree button would result in their personal data being shared with the Facebook family of companies,” the group told WhatsApp in October.

Similarly, a Belgian court earlier this month ordered Facebook to stop collecting data on users or face daily fines of €250,000 a day, or up to €100million.  The court ruled that Facebook had broken privacy laws by tracking people on third-party sites. “Facebook informs us insufficiently about gathering information about us, the kind of data it collects, what it does with that data and how long it stores it,” the court said. “It also does not gain our consent to collect and store all this information.”  The court ordered Facebook to delete all data it had gathered illegally on Belgian citizens, including people who were not users of the social network.

With regards to the German suit, Facebook said it would appeal, releasing a statement that it had already made significant changes to its terms of service sand data protection guidelines since the case was first brought in 2015. In the meantime, Facebook stated it would update its data protection guidelines and terms of services so that they comply with the new EU-wide GDPR rules.