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Belgium Accuses Facebook of Tracking Even Non-Users

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on May 19, 2015 12:53 PM

Several years ago, Facebook users became aware that the social media giant could track them across websites that used Facebook tracking cookies. Some users became upset, but Facebook assured them that these cookies could track Facebook users only while they were logged in to Facebook.

Except that turned out not to be true, either. Eventually, Facebook closed the glitch (was it a glitch?) allowing sites to track users' activity even while they were logged out of Facebook. Now, from Belgium, comes news that you're being tracked even if you're not a member of Facebook!

We See You When You're Sleeping, We Know When You're Awake

Even becoming a Luddite and living in a cave appears not to work, as that little "Like" button has more power than you think. According to The Guardian, the Belgian Privacy Commission told Facebook to stop tracking people who weren't even members of the site. A report originally publicly published in February said that Facebook tracking and data sharing policies, as well as some of its contract terms, violated European Union law.

In particular, the Commission criticized Facebook's "opt-out" framework, in which data privacy features -- like opting out of "sponsored stories" or third-party ad serving -- are turned off unless a user affirmatively enables them. The EU's data privacy protections are stronger than America's, and the allegations prompted Facebook to attack the regulations on basically the grounds you'd think: They're anti-business, anti-innovation, bureaucratic red tape, and so on.

As with the ability to track users even when they're logged out, Facebook said that was a bug, too, and promised a fix back in April.

American Regulators? Not So Interested

Back over on this side of the ocean, Facebook remains the subject of privacy lawsuits. In Illinois, the company is being sued over its facial recognition technology, which the plaintiff claims violates an Illinois law prohibiting companies from collecting some kinds of biometric data without consent.

And in the U.S. Supreme Court, The Huffington Post reported last month that Facebook, along with Google, Yahoo, and eBay, filed an amicus brief in Spokeo v. Robins, in which the Court will decide whether a violation of a federal statute, without any other proof of harm, is enough to grant standing for a cause of action based on that statute. A finding for Spokeo in that case would be a boon to Facebook, as it would establish that a violation of, oh, say, a federal privacy law, isn't actionable unless the plaintiff can prove he was actually injured by that violation.

Though Facebook has long claimed it's not interested in tracking users, that doesn't make much sense. Facebook makes its bread and butter using data analytics to figure out who its users are and what they like. They sell this information to advertisers so the advertisers can advertise more effectively. Of course they want to know which websites users visit.

In Europe, the government is putting its foot down. In the U.S.? Not so much.

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