Belgium’s privacy watchdog accused Facebook on Friday of trampling on European privacy laws by tracking people online without their consent and dodging questions from national regulators.
The Privacy Protection Commission, which is dealing with German, Dutch, French and Spanish counterparts, launched the blistering attack after searching for more about the U.S. social media giant’s practices.
It urged Internet surfers to set up privacy software to shield themselves from Facebook’s tracking systems, if they have a merchant account with the social networking or not.
The show of strength from the Belgian regulator, which doesn’t have the energy to levy fines, highlights an evergrowing willingness over the 28-member bloc to demand that big U.S. tech companies follow European laws.
"Facebook tramples on European and Belgian privacy laws", the Commission said after publishing a written report analyzing changes that the business designed to its privacy policies in January.
It said in a statement that Facebook had refused to identify Belgian and other EU national jurisdictions, insisting it had been subject only to regulations in Ireland, the website of its European headquarters.
"Facebook shows itself particularly miserly in giving precise answers," the watchdog said, adding that the results of the analysis by several researchers were "disconcerting".
A Facebook spokeswoman questioned the Belgians’ authority but said it could review the study’s recommendations with the Irish data protection commissioner: "We work hard to make certain folks have control over what they share and with whom."
"Facebook has already been regulated in Europe and complies with European data protection law, therefore the applicability of the CBPL’s efforts is unclear," she said.
Some EU states accuse Ireland to be soft on the multinational firms it really wants to attract, whether in data protection or corporate taxation.
The commission said it could publish another report on Facebook this season. Sanctions open to privacy watchdogs could be negligible to big firms, but a fresh EU data protection law likely to be ready this season allows for fines up to 5 percent of annual sales.
The commission said Facebook wouldn’t normally explain at length how it uses data it collects. It highlighted issues with plug-ins such as for example Facebook’s "Like" button, which it said affected many who don’t have a Facebook account.
Several firms are under fire in Europe over the info they collect. Facebook places tracking "cookies" when anyone visits a Facebook page, meaning it could track the web activities of a wide array of non-customers, but has said that is a bug that it’s attempting to fix.
The Commission asked Facebook to avoid gathering user data via cookies and plug-ins, except where users asked for this.
European regulators have previously forced Google to improve its privacy policies.
And this past year, EU judges upheld a Spanish order that Google must remove links to outdated information from looks for people’s names — establishing a "to be forgotten".
EU anti-trust regulators launched a case against Google last month and so are probing Apple and Amazon over low-tax handles Ireland and Luxembourg. The European Commission is studying whether to pursue German and French proposals for an EU-wide regulator for Internet platforms.
Some European politicians, also angered by revelations of U.S. espionage in Europe, say U.S. firms abuse their power, discouraging local start-ups and jeopardizing privacy laws cherished by Europeans with memories of authoritarian rule.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who’s trying to negotiate a landmark transatlantic free trade cope with the EU, TTIP, says Europe is nausea protectionist barriers to tech companies.
(Editing by David Clarke and Kevin Liffey)