A court in Belgium has ruled that Facebook must stop tracking visitors who have not signed up for – or into – its service. The social network now has until Wednesday to respond to the decision, which it is widely expected to appeal.

Français : Bouton « J'aime pas Facebook » trad...

Français : Bouton « J’aime pas Facebook  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The ruling arises from a case brought by the Belgian Privacy Commission, which is on record labeling Facebook’s collection and use of non-user data as “disrespectful.”

This description refers to a file installed as visitors view any page on the social network, even if they never sign up to the service. The country’s regulatory body wants to make that tracking something that visitors must actively agree to before the social network can start to follow them around the web and, more importantly, use that flow of data to the advantage of its related services and advertisers.

Although the case concerns a tracking “cookie” that Facebook has been using across Europe – and indeed globally – for years, the region’s privacy laws are much tighter than those in North America. For that reason, many governments around the EU are closely scrutinizing their legal options to force the California-based company to comply with their local privacy requirements.

Appeals notwithstanding, it appears that the Belgian authorities have been successful in their argument that it is mandatory for Facebook to obtain consent before collecting and storing such information. While the information itself is limited, when combined with other data it can be a powerful tool for advertisers to target offers to the user. It is the principle that the Belgian Privacy Commission is challenging in court, but the practical application that really impacts a user’s online experience.

Facebook is no stranger to privacy complaints, especially in Europe. Germany is currently engaged in a legal tug-of-war related the company’s real names policy, while last year was littered with allegations of privacy invasions that set the stage for this year’s legal battles.

How far the social network will go to prevent limits on its lucrative data gathering operation remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the battle lines have been drawn during 2015.

Given that Facebook’s business model is heavily reliant on harvesting user data, like Google and other prominent US companies that play fast and loose with privacy law, it’s unlikely they’ll give up their claim to our info without a fight.