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Facebook accused of giving users a false sense of control

A report commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Commission found that the company’s privacy policy violates European law.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Image: AP/Press Association Images

A NEW REPORT claims that Facebook is in breach of a number of European laws, concerning how much control its 1.39 billion users has over their data.

At the request of the Belgian Privacy Commission, both the ICRI/CIR and iMinds-SMIT conducted a report into what it describes as “an extensive analysis of Facebook’s revised policies and terms,” after it updated its privacy policy for 2015.

First reported by The Guardian, it found that most of Facebook’s new policies and terms were “simply old practices made more explicit.” The default configuration of certain settings like deciding what other Facebook users can access, application settings and settings for advertising was also described as “problematic” and gave users “a false sense of control.”

Some of the issues brought up by the report include:

Placing too much of a burden on its users: Users are expected to navigate the service’s settings to find possible opt-outs, which can be complex and hidden deep within the service. For example, a user can opt-out of appearing as part of Sponsored Stories by not liking content altogether. Also, users are unaware of their appearance in promotional content and how their data is used for advertising purposes.

Unfair contract terms: In comparison to 2013, the report states that Facebook’s new statement of Rights and Responsibilities have “not changed substantially” and a number of violations that were present in 2013 are set to persist in 2015.

Data subject rights: Facebook’s terms do not properly acknowledge the data subject rights of its users. Deleting your profile, for example, is an “all-or-nothing” option and only deletes things you’ve posted. Also, concerns over how the service tracks data and users’ location was highlighted.

Consent: The report states that for consent to be valid, it must be “freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.”

Given the limited information Facebook provides and the absence of meaningful choice with regard to certain processing operations, it is highly questionable whether Facebook’s current approach satisfies these requirements.

While it mentioned that Facebook’s 2015 Data Use Policy is more explicit about the types of information it collects, the description of purposes was still “as vague and broad as it was in 2013.”

Facebook is hoping to avoid another European privacy investigation and is meeting with the Belgian privacy minister, Bart Tommelein, on Wednesday to persuade him that there were “misunderstandings” about its new policy, according to The Register.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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