A Berlin court has told Facebook to stop putting users' photos in its ads without consent, and has also said the social network must explain to its users more explicitly how much information the Friend Finder tool draws in from their address books.
The judgment, which came through on Tuesday, is not yet legally binding. Although Facebook itself has not yet said what its next move will be, the consumer rights group whose suit brought on the ruling — the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband, or VZBV — said it expected the company to appeal.
Friend Finder is a tool that Facebook offers to users who want to find contacts, who might be in their Outlook address book, on the social network.
In 2010, the Hamburg data protection authorities opened an investigation into the function, but dropped it after Facebook said it would let non-members 'unsubscribe' from receiving Facebook friend requests, and explicitly tell members when it was emailing their non-member friends.
VZBV then took Facebook to court, arguing that the company was still not giving its users enough information. The group said that users could not possibly give their consent to all the actions of Friend Finder, given that they are not informed of the extent of the tool's actions.
For example, Friend Finder takes in not only all addresses in a mail client's contacts list, but also other details such as names and even phone numbers. The tool also harvests email addresses from the user's outbox and 'sent' folder.
The Berlin district court backed up VZBV's complaints and also said Facebook's terms and conditions were not in line with German business law, by claiming rights over all user-generated content on the site and forcing people to opt out of having their pictures used in advertising.
"The verdict is a milestone," VZBV said in a statement, adding that Facebook had to respect European data protection laws.
Facebook said it would decide on its "next steps" after closely examining the verdict.