Germany: Facebook Like button violates privacy laws

A German privacy group says use of the Facebook Like button leads to profiling that infringes German and European data protection laws.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor on

Facebook's Like button today was found in violation of Germany's strict privacy laws. Commissioner Thilo Weichert, who works for the Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (ULD) in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, said the social network’s plugin, which allows Internet users to express their appreciation of something online, illegally puts together a profile of their Web habits.

The ULD said if you visit Facebook.com or use a Facebook plugin such as the Like button, you should expect to be tracked by the company for two years: Facebook allegedly builds a broad profile for individuals not on the service as well as a more personalized profile of its members.

Traffic and content data are transferred to Facebook's servers in the US and an analysis is sent back to the website owner concerning the usage. The ULD believes such profiling infringes German and European data protection law. Users are not given sufficient information about this and the wording in Facebook's conditions of use and privacy statements do not meet the legal requirements relevant for compliance of legal notice, privacy consent, and general terms of use, according to the ULD.

The ULD is demanding that websites in Schleswig-Holstein remove their Facebook Pages as well as the Like button from their websites by the end of September 2011. If they do not, they will face a fine of up to €50,000 ($72,000).

As for Internet users, the ULD is advising "to keep their fingers from clicking on social plugins" such as the Facebook Like button and not to set up a Facebook account if they wish to avoid a comprehensive profiling by Palo Alto. Profiles are personal information, but Facebook requires that its members use their actual name, the organization points out.

"ULD has pointed out informally for some time that many Facebook offerings are in conflict with the law," Weichart said in a statememt. "This unfortunately has not prevented website owners from using the respective services and the more so as they are easy to install and free of charge. Web analytics is among those services and especially informative for advertising purposes. It is paid with the data of the users. With the help of these data Facebook has gained an estimated market value of more than 50 bn. dollars. Institutions must be aware that they cannot shift their responsibility for data privacy upon the enterprise Facebook which does not have an establishment in Germany and also not upon the users."

Facebook of course disagrees with Weichert's claims. "We firmly reject any assertion that Facebook is not compliant with EU data protection standards," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "The Facebook Like button is such a popular feature because people have complete control over how their information is shared through it. For more than a year, the plugin has brought value to many businesses and individuals every day. We will review the materials produced by the ULD, both on our own behalf and on the behalf of web users throughout Germany."

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