Europe’s top court has made a ruling that could affect scores of websites that embed the Facebook ‘Like’ button and receive visitors from the region.
The ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU states such sites are jointly responsible for the initial data processing — and must either obtain informed consent from site visitors prior to data being transferred to Facebook, or be able to demonstrate a legitimate interest legal basis for processing this data.
The ruling is significant because, as currently seems to be the case, Facebook’s Like buttons transfer personal data automatically, when a webpage loads — without the user even needing to interact with the plug-in — which means if websites are relying on visitors’ ‘consenting’ to their data being shared with Facebook they will likely need to change how the plug-in functions to ensure no data is sent to Facebook prior to visitors being asked if they want their browsing to be tracked by the adtech giant.
The background to the case is a complaint against online clothes retailer, Fashion ID, by a German consumer protection association, Verbraucherzentrale NRW — which took legal action in 2015 seeking an injunction against Fashion ID’s use of the plug-in which it claimed breached European data protection law.
Like ’em or loath ’em, Facebook’s ‘Like’ buttons are an impossible-to-miss component of the mainstream web. Though most Internet users are likely unaware that the social plug-ins are used by Facebook to track what other websites they’re visiting for ad targeting purposes.
Last year the company told the UK parliament that between April 9 and April 16 the button had appeared on 8.4M websites, while its Share button social plug-in appeared on 931K sites. (Facebook also admitted to 2.2M instances of another tracking tool it uses to harvest non-Facebook browsing activity — called a Facebook Pixel — being invisibly embedded on third party websites.)
The Fashion ID case predates the introduction of the EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, which further toughens the rules around obtaining consent — meaning it must be purpose specific, informed and freely given.
Today’s CJEU decision also follows another ruling a year ago, in a case related to Facebook fan pages, when the court took a broad view of privacy responsibilities around platforms — saying both fan page administrators and host platforms could be data controllers. Though it also said joint controllership does not necessarily imply equal responsibility for each party.
In the latest decision the CJEU has sought to draw some limits on the scope of joint responsibility, finding that a website where the Facebook Like button is embedded cannot be considered a data controller for any subsequent processing, i.e. after the data has been transmitted to Facebook Ireland (the data controller for Facebook’s European users).
The joint responsibility specifically covers the collection and transmission of Facebook Like data to Facebook Ireland.
“It seems, at the outset, impossible that Fashion ID determines the purposes and means of those operations,” the court writes in a press release announcing the decision.
“By contrast, Fashion ID can be considered to be a controller jointly with Facebook Ireland in respect of the operations involving the collection and disclosure by transmission to Facebook Ireland of the data at issue, since it can be concluded (subject to the investigations that it is for the Oberlandesgericht Düsseldorf [German regional court] to carry out) that Fashion ID and Facebook Ireland determine jointly the means and purposes of those operations.”
Responding the judgement in a statement attributed to its associate general counsel, Jack Gilbert, Facebook told us:
Website plugins are common and important features of the modern Internet. We welcome the clarity that today’s decision brings to both websites and providers of plugins and similar tools. We are carefully reviewing the court’s decision and will work closely with our partners to ensure they can continue to benefit from our social plugins and other business tools in full compliance with the law.
The company said it may make changes to the Like button to ensure websites that use it are able to comply with Europe’s GDPR.
Though it’s not clear what specific changes these could be, such as — for example — whether Facebook will change the code of its social plug-ins to ensure no data is transferred at the point a page loads. (We’ve asked Facebook and will update this report with any response.)
Facebook also points out that other tech giants, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, deploy similar social plug-ins — suggesting the CJEU ruling will apply to other social platforms, as well as to thousands of websites across the EU where these sorts of plug-ins crop up.
“Sites with the button should make sure that they are sufficiently transparent to site visitors, and must make sure that they have a lawful basis for the transfer of the user’s personal data (e.g. if just the user’s IP address and other data stored on the user’s device by Facebook cookies) to Facebook,” Neil Brown, a telecoms, tech and internet lawyer at U.K. law firm Decoded Legal, told TechCrunch.
“If their lawful basis is consent, then they’ll need to get consent before deploying the button for it to be valid — otherwise, they’ll have done the transfer before the visitor has consented
“If relying on legitimate interests — which might scrape by — then they’ll need to have done a legitimate interests assessment, and kept it on file (against the (admittedly unlikely) day that a regulator asks to see it), and they’ll need to have a mechanism by which a site visitor can object to the transfer.”
“Basically, if organisations are taking on board the recent guidance from the ICO and CNIL on cookie compliance, wrapping in Facebook ‘Like’ and other similar things in with that work would be sensible,” Brown added.
Luca Tosoni, a research fellow at the University of Oslo’s Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law who has been following the case, said the court has not clarified what interests may be considered ‘legitimate’ in this context — only that both the website operator and the plug-in provider must pursue a legitimate interest.
“After today’s judgment, all website operators that insert third-party plug-ins (such as Facebook ‘Like’ buttons) in their websites should carefully reassess their compliance with EU data protection law,” he agreed. “In particular, they should verify whether their privacy policies cover data processing operations involving the collection and transmission of visitors’ personal data by means of third-party plug-ins. Many of today’s policies are unlikely to cover such operations.
“Website operators should also assess what is the appropriate legal basis for the collection and transmission of personal data by means of the plug-ins embedded in their websites, and if consent applies, they should ensure that they obtain the user’s consent before the data collection takes place, which may often prove challenging in practice. In this regard, the use of pre-ticked checkboxes is not advisable, as it tends to be considered insufficient to fulfil the criteria for valid consent under European data protection law.”
Also commenting on the judgement, Michael Veale, a UK-based researcher in tech and privacy law/policy, said it raises questions about how Facebook will comply with Europe’s data protection framework for any further processing it carries out of the social plug-in data.
“The whole judgement to me leaves open the question ‘on what grounds can Facebook justify further processing of data from their web tracking code?'” he told us. “If they have to provide transparency for this further processing, which would take them out of joint controllership into sole controllership, to whom and when is it provided?
“If they have to demonstrate they would win a legitimate interests test, how will that be affected by the difficulty in delivering that transparency to data subjects?’
“Can Facebook do a backflip and say that for users of their service, their terms of service on their platform justifies the further use of data for which individuals must have separately been made aware of by the website where it was collected?
“The question then quite clearly boils down to non-users, or to users who are effectively non-users to Facebook through effective use of technologies such as Mozilla’s browser tab isolation.”
How far a tracking pixel could be considered a ‘similar device’ to a cookie is another question to consider, he said.
The tracking of non-Facebook users via social plug-ins certainly continues to be a hot-button legal issue for Facebook in Europe — where the company has twice lost in court to Belgium’s privacy watchdog on this issue. (Facebook has continued to appeal.)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also faced questions about tracking non-users last year, from MEPs in the European Parliament — who pressed him on whether Facebook uses data on non-users for any other uses vs the security purpose of “keeping bad content out” that he claimed requires Facebook to track everyone on the mainstream Internet.
MEPs also wanted to know how non-users can stop their data being transferred to Facebook? Zuckerberg gave no answer, likely because there’s currently no way for non-users to stop their data being sucked up by Facebook’s servers — short of staying off the mainstream Internet.
This report was updated with additional comment