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22nd Nov 2019

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Facebook blocks non-members in Belgium, accused of 'blackmail'

  • Accessing Facebook pages from the Grand Place in Brussels, or anywhere else in Belgium, will become impossible for non-members (Photo: Brieuc Kestens)

In Belgium, Facebook will no longer allow non-members of its social network site to access Facebook pages of companies or organisations.

The company has told the country's privacy watchdog in a letter dated Tuesday (1 December) it will stop using a specific type of tracking measure, called a “datr cookie”, which it said was required for security reasons. But it added it will introduce “other safety- and security-related measures that are necessary in the absence of the datr cookie”.

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  • Facebook said it had no choice but to block access to non-registered users, for security reasons. (Photo: Maurizio Pesce)

The decision follows a ruling by a court in Brussels in November. The court said Facebook should stop following online behaviour of Belgians who are not a member of the service.

Facebook had tracked them by placing small text files called cookies on their computers, without asking for permission, a requirement by EU law.

“If the [Internet] surfer has a Facebook account, one may assume that he has given this consent, but if the surfer has no Facebook account, then Facebook has to explicitly ask for permission, and give the required explanation,” court spokesperson Anouk Devenyns said after the ruling.

The court said that Facebook had to stop tracking non-members, or face a daily penalty of €250,000.

In its letter to the Belgian privacy watchdog, who had started the case by suing Facebook in June, the American firm said blocking Facebook pages to Belgians who are not logged in with a Facebook account, was the only way to ensure security.

“This path will enable us to ensure full compliance with the Order within the designated time period, while fulfilling our commitments to the millions of Belgians (and other community members) who use the Facebook Service every day, and satisfying the stringent safety- and security-related obligations we have under European data protection standards,” Facebook wrote to Willem Debeuckelaere, president of Belgium's Commission for the protection of privacy.

But Debeuckelaere is not happy with Facebook's reaction to the court case.

“This is not what we asked for,” he said according to Belgian public broadcaster VRT.

“We asked them to stop following people who are not a Facebook member. Period. It seems like they are playing a game in which they are trying to corner us,” noted Debeuckelaere, who added the blockade is a means to portray the privacy commission as the bad guy.

“As if we are the ones blocking information from the internet user,” he said, adding Facebook's actions amount to “blackmail”.

Belgium's federal deputy minister for privacy affairs, liberal Bart Tommelein, also criticised the move.

“Just because [Facebook] is a big player and the impact of their decision is large, does not mean we should give into blackmail. Everyone should abide by the privacy rules,” the Belgian politician said.

In its letter, Facebook denied it was blackmailing, and said it had no choice but to block access to non-registered users.

It did not say when the measure would be implemented. On Thursday morning (3 December) several Facebook pages were still accessible from Belgium.

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