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Announced yesterday, the ruling by a court in Brussels said that Facebook could no longer collect and store online information from Belgian residents who do not have Facebook accounts. The court said that Facebook did not have individuals’ consent to gather the information. Facebook faces fines of close to $270, 000 per day if it doesn’t comply with the court’s order within 48 hours, the court said yesterday.
The case started when Facebook changed its terms and conditions to give it more latitude in how it collects and uses members' online information. That got the attention of Belgium’s data protection authority, the Belgian Privacy Commission, which brought the case against Facebook to civil court in June.
The watchdog accused the company of collecting the personal data of its members as well as nonmembers, without asking for their permission or adequately explaining how it planned to use the data.
Facebook has been the target of several data protection cases in Europe. Privacy regulators from the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and France are also investigating whether the company’s new privacy conditions violate their domestic data protection rules.
The social networking company maintains that only Ireland’s privacy authority has jurisdiction over its new privacy conditions, since Facebook’s international headquarters are in Dublin. The majority of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users outside North America are managed at that headquarters.
The European high court, with encouragement from data-privacy watchdogs, has been strict about how American technology companies get and use people’s digital information. That court recently gave national authorities greater power over how companies like Facebook and Google store online data. Europe’s relatively strict data protection rules generally classify individual privacy as a fundamental right equivalent to freedom of expression.
Facebook has been using digital cookies to collect data on online activities from its own members as well as people without Facebook accounts. The cookies are embedded on Facebook’s pages and on those of other companies that have links to Facebook through features such as its Like button. The company collects massive amounts of data regarding users’ online activities, which it uses to fuel its advertising business.
In response to the ruling, Facebook said that it has used such cookies for more than five years without any complaints. The company plans to take its case to the Belgian Court of Appeals, but will also take steps to stop collecting online information about non-Facebook users in Belgium within the next several days.
"We are working to minimize any disruption to people’s access to Facebook in Belgium, " Sally Aldous, a company spokeswoman, told The New York Times in a statement.
Digital Data Protected
Despite the company’s efforts to rely on the rules of the Irish data protection regulator, though, many of Europe’s privacy watchdogs have sought an increasingly greater say in how digital information about their citizens is handled.