CookieLaw Blog April 7, 2015

Facebook Challenged Over Cookie Compliance

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Facebook’s consumer tracking practices have been coming under increased scrutiny in recent months, including a recent report carried out for Belgium’s Data Protection Authority (DPA), where the authors provide the opinion that the company is in direct breach of the EU cookie laws.

An update to the report from February has been published, as well as a more detailed analysis of how the social giant tracks consumers through its plug-ins, the main example being the almost ubiquitous Like button. 

Facebook itself has been quick to respond in the media, stating that the reports contain a number of unspecified inaccuracies, as well as complaining that it was not given a chance to participate or comment on the research before it was made public.

Upate 9 April: Facebook has now produced a written response to the report, although states it is not comprehensive.

And now, according to the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), several European authorities are initiating further investigations into Facebook’s practices following the reports.

The main issue at stake is whether internet users, even those who do not have a Facebook account, can reasonably avoid being tracked online by the social behemoth.  According to the report’s authors it is very difficult.

The report claims that anyone visiting a Facebook page, regardless of whether they are logged in, or even have a Facebook account, receives a unique tracking cookie with a 2 year life-span, the datr cookie.

Whenever they visit any other site that includes Facebook plug-ins, including the Like button, that cookie is able to be read by Facebook, including the URL of the site the user was looking at.

By connecting up the pages recorded against the unique cookie, the company can build up a profile for the user about what it thinks (based on secret algorithms) they are interested in.  This is the basis of the behavioural advertising that Facebook (and most other web giants) generates its income from.

The EU cookie laws were introduced to both increase awareness of such activity and provide consumers with controls to limit or stop it if they were not happy about it. Ultimately what these reports are saying is that Facebook, one of the biggest cookie trackers around, does not appear to be living up to its obligations.

What happens next on this issue will likely have a big influence on the perception of the effectiveness of the cookie law and the regulators charged with enforcing it.

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