Many people choose not to use Facebook. It’s invasive, people over share, and some users have found that it simply stresses them out, so they have opted to not use the world’s premiere social network to keep in touch with family and friends.
But just because you’ve chosen not to use Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook has chosen not to use you.
An investigation from the Belgian Privacy Commission has found that Facebook has been tracking users when they are signed out of their accounts, or even when they don’t have Facebook accounts at all. The report, conducted by researchers from two prominent European universities — the University of Leuven and Vrije Universiteit Brussels — says that Facebook can gather tracking information through the use of social plugins. This is in violation of European law, which requires clear consent of such measures by users.
“While Facebook provides users with high-level information about its tracking practices, we argue that the collection or use of device information envisaged by the 2015 DUP does not comply with the requirements of article 5(3) of the e-Privacy Directive, which requires free and informed prior consent before storing or accessing information on an individual’s device. Facebook also tracks non-users in a manner which violates article 5(3) of the e-Privacy Directive,” the report states.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit of detail in the 67-page study, so there are naturally some simplifications taking place. But if the researchers’ findings are indeed accurate, then Facebook may be finding itself in a bit of trouble similar to what Google is facing.
European law is much more stringent and direct regarding online communication and privacy, and it appears that blanket approaches to tracking and security by Internet and social media companies are causing some major issues. Of course, Facebook didn’t simply take the news of the study laying down, and fired right back after its release.
The Verge was on the receiving end of a statement from Facebook, in which the company claims that the European study got many things wrong, and in fact, didn’t even contact them to get the full story. “This report contains factual inaccuracies,” the statement read.
“The authors have never contacted us, nor sought to clarify any assumptions upon which their report is based. Neither did they invite our comment on the report before making it public. We have explained in detail the inaccuracies in the earlier draft report … and have offered to meet with [the report’s commissioning body] to explain why it is incorrect, but they have declined to meet or engage with us.”
That rebuttal, particularly the claim that researchers declined to meet with company representatives, is important to keep in mind. In addition, remember that Facebook’s legal troubles are strictly relegated to the European continent. American laws are notoriously more lax when it comes to privacy issues, which is why companies like Facebook and Google seem to always be under the microscope across the pond.
As we’ve discussed previously at The Cheat Sheet, compiling data and tracking user behavior are how companies like Facebook make money. If considerable clamp-downs were put into place in the form of privacy regulations, many social networks would effectively go bust. By gathering and selling personal data – which users agree to when they sign, or click, the terms and conditions — social media networks and companies like Google are able to turn that information into advertising dollars.
Basically, their revenues depend on this sort of thing.
Still, the problem with the recent charges levied against Facebook concern Internet activity and tracking that is taking place outside of that framework — or, browsing being done when not logged in to Facebook. The even more egregious charge is that Facebook is tracking those who never signed or agreed to Facebook’s terms of service in the first place, because they are not users. In that sense, it’s pretty justifiable that European lawmakers and Internet users would be upset.
As Facebook is disputing the claims of these European researchers, we probably won’t know anything for certain for a while. If it’s found that similar things are taking place in America as well as Europe, that could change the discussion. But for now, it’s not clear what, if anything, will happen as a result of the Belgian Privacy Commission’s report.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger