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Facebook’s use of personal data is illegal, German court rules

The default privacy settings and Facebook’s uses of personal data contravene German consumer law, a regional court has ruled.

In the latest of a long-running series of spats between the social media behemoth and Europe’s legal profession over privacy, a Berlin court upheld the complaints of litigator VZBV, a federation of German consumer organisations, that five of Facebook’s opt-ins do not meet the required standards for informed consent.

“Facebook hides default settings that are not privacy-friendly in its privacy centre and does not provide sufficient information about this when users register,” said Heiko Dünkel, litigation policy officer at VZBV.

For example, Facebook’s mobile app reveals its user’s location by default and the box allowing search engines to crawl a user’s timeline comes pre-ticked. 

“In the privacy settings, ticks were already placed in boxes that allowed search engines to link to the user’s timeline,” said VZBV in a press release on its web site.

“This meant that anyone could quickly and easily find personal Facebook profiles. The judges ruled that all five of the default settings on Facebook that VZBV complained about are invalid as declarations of consent. They said there was no guarantee that users would even know they were there.”

The court also ruled that Facebook’s terms granting it consent for the use of personal data are framed too broadly, with eight clauses found to be invalid.

“These included pre-formulated declarations of consent … which allowed Facebook to use the name and profile picture of users ‘for commercial, sponsored or related content’ and to transfer their data to the USA,” VZVB said.

“The judges made it clear that such pre-formulated declarations cannot constitute effective consent to the use of data.”

In addition, Facebook’s “real names” policy was deemed to be unlawful.

“Providers of online services must allow users to use their services anonymously, for example using a pseudonym,” the federation of consumer groups said.

However, a VZBV claim that Facebook is not really free because users pay with their personal data was rejected by the court.

Facebook has said it will appeal against all of the judgements.

“We are working hard to ensure that our guidelines are clear and easy to understand and that the services offered by Facebook are in full accordance with the law,” the company said in a statement.

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