NEWS22 August 2011

German privacy watchdog unlikes Facebook

Government News Privacy

GERMANY— A regional data protection watchdog in Germany has told website owners to immediately shut down their Facebook pages and remove ‘Like’ buttons from their sites, because the way the social network tracks and profiles users breaches data protection law.

The Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (ULD) in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein said that Facebook sends data on users’ activities to the United States without giving sufficient notice or choice to the user. Its privacy statements do not come close to meeting legal requirements, the body said. Facebook has insisted it is in full compliance with data protection law.

Sites in Schleswig-Holstein have until the end of September to make sure they are not passing users’ data to Facebook before the ULD takes “further steps”, which could include prohibition orders and fines of up to €50,000.

Many organisations maintain Facebook pages to engage with audiences. They can also place ‘Like’ buttons on their own websites, which automatically update the Facebook accounts of users who click on them. This also allows Facebook to track users’ behaviour elsewhere on the internet.

The ULD said Facebook produces “broad individual” profiles of web users, and personalised profiles of its members, warning users that they “must expect [to] be tracked by the company for two years”. Associated Press reports quoted a Facebook spokesman saying that IP addresses of users who click Like buttons are deleted within 90 days, “in keeping with normal industry standards”.

Thilo Weichert, head of the ULD, said the authority has pointed out before that such features are in conflict with the law, but sites have continued to use them. He reminded site owners that free services such as this are “paid for with users’ data”, and that sites cannot place the responsibility for data privacy on Facebook or on users themselves.

He said users should avoid using Facebook or clicking on ‘Like’ buttons “if they wish to avoid a comprehensive profiling by this company”.

It is not the first time that Germany’s privacy authorities have threatened fines against sites using popular free tools – Google Analytics has also been declared illegal because it doesn’t give users a chance to opt out.

Weichert said this is “only the beginning of a continuing privacy impact analysis of Facebook applications”, and that the ULD will work together with other German data protection authorities.