Perhaps unbeknownst to you, Facebook is able to follow your browsing habits without your consent, and monetize to the practice by selling your data to advertisers. Thanks to your seemingly innocent ’’shares” and ’’likes,” your browsing behavior is laid open to the digital world according to the Belgian privacy watchdog, the Belgian Privacy Commission (BPC).
Belgian judges have ruled against the social media giant, and as a result, it faces staggering fines unless it remedies the situation. The hefty penalties could amount to about $125 million, plus $300,000 each day that it is noncompliant with the decision and fails to stop Belgians’ web activity being hijacked for gain. It must also destroy any data that it has already illegally obtained.
The financial damages assessed are likely so severe because this is not the first time that the company is being sanctioned. In 2015, the BPC brought a civil suit against Facebook for its clandestine monitoring of non-users via social plug-ins, canvas fingerprinting ("pixels"), and suchlike. After the company ostensibly ignored the watchdog’s complaint, the BPC took it to court over the issue of how it tracks cookies and plug-ins on third-party websites to discern users' and non-users' internet activity.
Facebook, as might be expected, has expressed grave misgivings about the decision, contending that its methods have been mischaracterized. It has vowed to appeal. Having failed to impress upon the court that it had no jurisdiction as the company is headquartered in Ireland, it issued a statement:
“The cookies and pixels we use are industry standard technologies and enable hundreds of thousands of businesses to grow their businesses and reach customers across the EU. We require any business that uses our technologies to provide clear notice to end-users, and we give people the right to opt-out of having data collected on sites and apps off Facebook being used for ads.”
The company also maintained that it was not doing anything illegal or non-transparent. On the contrary, Facebook went so far as to say that what it does is beneficial for users and non-users, because the technology benefits users by showing them more relevant content. Non-users enjoy targeted advertising as a result of their protocols... so it contends. Its stance is suspect, however, in light of legal challenges and growing consumer dislike of ads that stalk them around the internet.
As far as legal action against it is concerned, this may only the beginning of Facebook’s woes. It may find itself embroiled in legal proceedings on many fronts, not the least of which is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is slated to be effective come May. This wide-ranging directive aims to add teeth to the enforcement of privacy rights by introducing a new system of penalties for data protection violations, which can reach to as high as 4 percent of a company’s worldwide sales.
GDPR proponents hope that its added bite will deter companies like Facebook from playing fast and loose with the disclosure of the real effect its tracking of consumers' online behaviors actually has. As a result, users will be made more aware of what Facebook is doing with their data. Folks may then be a lot less inclined to be patsies in a game which lines Facebook’s pockets at their expense.
The other variable in this saga for Facebook is its advertisers, who may be rattled by the current turmoil and in the anticipation of the GDPR in late May. To put them at ease and keep them in the loop, Facebook is conducting continent-wide workshops aimed at small and medium-sized businesses- its lifeblood of revenue. It will be interesting to monitor these developments and see how Facebook addresses future legal and regulatory challenges.
Image credit: By Gil C/Shutterstock.