Belgium Orders Facebook to Stop Tracking Non-Users Online; Company Calls It “Industry Standard” Practice


Facebook continues to have troubles in the land of GDPR. Ahead of the incoming tougher privacy protections in Europe, the social networking giant that has been flooding the news spaces for losing its users is apparently also attracting some massive fines in the European Union. A Belgian court has now ordered Facebook to stop tracking users after it discovered that the company was breaking privacy laws by using cookies and social plugins to invisibly track Facebook users and non-users around the web.

This comes just days after Germany ruled that the company's real name policy was illegal and that Facebook's use of personal data was against the country's consumer laws. As for Belgium, this is the second time a court has ruled that the company is violating privacy protections.

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Facebook will have to pay up to €100 million (~$124 million), at a rate of €250,000 per day in fines, if it doesn't comply with the latest ruling to stop tracking Belgian users. The social network plans to appeal and has called its tracking practices an "industry standard." The company's VP of public policy for EMEA, Richard Allan, said in 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 court, however, says that the social networking giant failed to make it sufficiently clear how people were being tracked and how their activity was being used. The company is also ordered to destroy all illegally obtained personal data. Facebook continues to suggest that its cookie tracking practices are transparent and it actually benefits users since they are shown relevant content. The EU watchdogs and courts counter that argument saying that the company doesn't receive informed consent from its users.

"Facebook collects information about us all when we surf the Internet," the Belgian Privacy Commission said (via TechCrunch). "To this end, Facebook uses various technologies, such as the famous “cookies” or the “social plug-ins” (for example, the “Like” or “Share” buttons) or the “pixels” that are invisible to the naked eye."

It uses them on its website but also and especially on the websites of third parties. Thus, the survey reveals that even if you have never entered the Facebook domain, Facebook is still able to follow your browsing behavior without you knowing it, let alone, without you wanting it, thanks to these invisible pixels that Facebook has placed on more than 10,000 other sites.

As the GDPR rules are incoming in May, the company that has potentially attracted the most user ire in the past few years for invading their lives (even if they never signed up for it) is potentially looking at several other similar lawsuits and rulings. The violations of GDPR can end up costing the companies up to 4% of their global turnover.

Ahead of these rules, Facebook did start a PR campaign, published a few tutorials and new privacy principles. It's unclear if Facebook will start informing users of stalking them virtually everywhere they go online, but the company promises it will indeed "comply with this new law" just as it's complied with the existing laws. The Belgium Privacy Commission said in a statement that the social networking giant is "conducting a major advertising campaign where it shares its attachment to privacy."

"We hope it will put this commitment into practice."