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Facebook disputes Belgian tracking order over use of English in court ruling

January 29, 2016

Facebook is objecting to the use of English words such as “cookie” and “browser” in a Belgian court order, which has demanded the site stop tracking users without their consent, saying that Belgians may not understand the words.

It forms a small part of Facebook’s appeal in its long-running battle over tracking of non-users of its social network.

Facebook was ordered to stop tracking internet users who do not have accounts with the social network within 24 hours or face fines of up to €250,000 a day. The ruling included the English words “browser” and “cookie” referring to parts of Facebook’s tracking technology.

Dirk Lindemans, a lawyer representing Facebook Belgium told the Belgian newspaper De Tijd: “It is a requirement that justice can be understood by everyone. Otherwise you get a slippery slope towards class-biased justice.”

The social network is appealing the use of English words under Belgian law that dictates rulings must be made in Dutch, French or German from a Belgian court. Facebook is claiming that the ruling should be annulled.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “It’s untrue to suggest that we are appealing our court case only on a point of language. It is one of many arguments which we made when we submitted our appeal documents in January and forms two paragraphs of 190 in a 37 page document.”

Even so, the strength of Facebook’s argument on this point is questionable. The Dutch for “web browser” is “webbrowser” for instance, while in French it is “browser” or “navigateur”. An internet “cookie”, as opposed to a biscuit, is “cookie” in all three languages.

The case, brought by the Belgian Privacy watchdog in June 2015, accused Facebook of indiscriminately tracking internet users when they visit pages on the site or click “like” or “share”, even if they are not members of the social network. Tracking users without their permission contravenes European privacy law.

The Belgian court said Facebook used a special “cookie” that lodged on a user’s device if they visited a Facebook page – for example belonging to a friend, a shop or a political party – even if they were not signed up to the network.

Facebook claims the cookie is used to protect users as part of its security systems, preventing user accounts being hacked.

Brendan van Alsenoy, legal researcher at the KU Leuven Centre for IT & IP law and author of the report into Facebook’s tracking of users on which the Belgium data protection case was built: “I can only express surprise and disbelief. It’s so far from the substance of the case, and needlessly detracts from the important issues at stake.”

Facebook said: “While we’re confident that we are fully compliant with applicable European law, we are working hard to address the Belgian Privacy Commissioner’s concerns in a way that allows us to provide the best possible service and have offered to work with them on a solution.”

Willem Debeuckelaere, president of the Belgian Privacy Commission said: “‘Law is a profession of words’, so keep it professional.”

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