Facebook charged with collecting excessive data on non-users

By CATIE PAUL
Science & Technology Editor

On Monday, a Belgian court ruled that social media company Facebook needed to stop collecting data on non-users. Facebook is planning to appeal the ruling and has already taken it to the Belgian Court of Appeal.

Facebook uses code called cookies to collect data. Anytime someone clicks on a Facebook page or even just a page that has a Facebook “like” button, these cookies record information about the activity on the computer or smartphone that the person is using. Facebook’s business model is built on collecting this data, which it uses to tailor ads to individuals.

The case was originally filed by Belgian data protection authorities, who worried about changes in Facebook’s terms and conditions. Facebook has updated these terms to allow itself to collect more data on individuals and use it more freely. The court, located in Brussels, ruled that Facebook could no longer collect data on non-users because, without signing up for an account, they had not consented to letting the company gather personal information about them.

Facebook will face a fine of up to $270,000 a day until it complies with the ruling. Facebook responded to the ruling by stating that it had used cookies to collect data for five years without any complaints.

The European Union (EU) is known for having a more strict view on data protection and privacy than the U.S. Facebook is not the first company to run afoul of the EU when it comes to collecting data on individuals.

The European Court of Justice is taking a stronger stance on how companies like Google and Facebook store data that they have collected on individuals. It recently ruled that they could not transfer the data from Europe to the U.S. These companies had been using a provision known as “safe harbor” in order to store data about European individuals in the U.S.

The court stated, however, that keeping this data in the U.S. might provide American authorities with access to data about individuals from other countries. Referring to the leaks by Edward Snowden, the court pointed out that American government agencies, such as the National Security Agency (NSA), already have a large amount of access to data stored in the U.S. If data stored in the U.S. was collected by these agencies, this action would infringe upon Europeans’ right to privacy.

The court further stated that data protection agencies in each EU country should have the final say in how the data collected in their countries is stored. There are 28 different countries in the EU, each with very different laws on online privacy.

The U.S. had lobbied to keep the safe harbor agreement in place. In a recent statement, Penny Pritzker, the American secretary of commerce, stated that she was extremely disappointed about the decision. She added that she felt that it put the trans-Atlantic digital economy at risk.

The ruling left companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft facing an uncertain future. They rely on the transfer of data between countries to facilitate online advertising. For now, the companies’ servers are running as usual. The movement of data from the EU to the U.S. is currently being protected by other treaties, although this ruling could make it easier to strike other agreements down.

Belgium is not the only country that is critical of Facebook’s new policies. Authorities in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain are also investigating the social media company’s actions.

Meanwhile Facebook has stated that it will comply with the Belgian court’s ruling by the end of this week.
“We are working to minimize any disruption to people’s access to Facebook in Belgium,” Sally Aldous, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement.

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