Facebook hits back at data use privacy criticisms

woman reading Facebook through sunglasses Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Facebook says it has not been consulted over the report

Facebook has attacked a report that said its privacy policy may be in breach of EU laws.

The report, produced last month by academics at the request of the Belgian privacy commission, said that the site tracks people without their consent.

An annexe to that report, published last week, added details of Facebook's tracking and prompted fresh criticism.

Facebook said the report was "inaccurate" and complained that it was not contacted before its publication.

"This report contains factual inaccuracies," a spokesperson said.

"The authors have never contacted us, nor sought to clarify any assumptions upon which their report is based. Neither did they invite our comment on the report before making it public.

"However, we remain willing to engage with them and hope they will be prepared to update their work in due course."

The report's authors have said that they stick by their findings.

"To date, we have not been contacted by Facebook directly nor have we received any meeting request," Brendan Van Alsenoy and Gunes Acar said.

"We're not surprised that Facebook holds a different opinion as to what European data protection laws require.

"But if Facebook feels today's releases contain factual errors, we're happy to receive any specific remarks it would like to make."

No opt-outs

Facebook is regulated by the Irish Data Commissioner and says it has passed two audits of its data protection policies.

On 27 March, the report's authors - who include researchers from KU Leuven university and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium - published a separate paper about Facebook's use of plug-ins to track people.

A plug-in, such as the follow button that Facebook provides to direct users to a company's Facebook page from its own website, can also act as a tracker, following the sites a person visits.

However, many online companies use plug-ins, as well as cookies, for tracking internet use.

Facebook was also criticised for not offering opt-outs on location data collations.

The authors said this may put Facebook in breach of EU laws that demand explicit consent from individuals for website tracking and the use of cookies.

'Too much burden'

Facebook updated its policies in January but the researchers said the changes were not significant.

"To be clear: the changes introduced in 2015 weren't all that drastic," they wrote in their original paper.

"Most of Facebook's 'new' policies and terms are simply old practices made more explicit."

The terms stated that Facebook could track its users across websites and devices, use pictures uploaded for commercial purposes and collate location data.

The report also claimed that the platform "places too much burden" on site members by presenting them with a "complicated web" of settings.

Facebook, however, has defended its approach.

"Cookies have been an industry standard for more than 15 years," said a spokesman.

If people want to opt out of seeing advertising based on the websites they visit and apps they use, they opt out through the EDAA [European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance], whose principles and opt out we and more than 100 other companies comply with.

"Facebook takes this commitment one step further: when you use the EDAA opt out, we opt you out on all devices you use and you won't see ads based on the websites and apps you use."

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