A German regional court judge has ruled that Facebook's use of user content and its Friend Finder feature violate privacy laws, and that it must change its terms of service.
The Central Consumer Association, or Verbrauchercentrale Bundesverband (VZBV), the umbrella organisation for consumer rights groups in Germany, brought the case to court in 2010, citing the way Friend Finder works and how the social network handles ownership of personal data uploaded to the network.
Facebook users have the option to find friends by using the Friend Finder feature, which imports contacts from their email address books, and uploads them to the social network. The problem is that it is unclear to users that they import their entire address book into Facebook, explained Steffen Küßner, a spokesman for the VZBV. The court ruled Tuesday that Facebook has to clearly inform users that the addresses are imported and can be used to invite friends to join the social network
Facebook adjusted the workings of the Friend Finder slightly in anticipation of the court case. However, the VZBV deemed the change to be insufficient, Küßner said. The judge agreed with this view.
The case also dealt with ownership of personal data uploaded to the social network. If a user uploads a photo or original music, Facebook gets the rights to this data, and can use it for other purposes than intended by the user, Küßner said. Control over this data should remain with the user, the VZBV said. The judge agreed, ruling that Facebook's use of personal content was also a violation of data protection laws. Facebook may use these works only with the consent of users.
"We won on all counts", said Küßner, who added the decision is a big victory for German Facebook users' privacy rights.
The court did not yet finalise the verdict, said Ulrich Wimmer, a spokesperson for Landgericht Berlin, the regional court in the German capital. He said that the court ruled that Facebook users should be better informed about what happens to their personal data.
The VZBV has called on Facebook to comply with German and European data protection rules from now on. The organisation said it is going to keep an close eye on the social network. Facebook should consider local data protection rules before a new feature is introduced, it added.
When the verdict is finalised Facebook will have a month to implement the imposed changes. Finalising the verdict should take one to two weeks.
It was unclear if Facebook will appeal the verdict. "We will take a close look into the details of today's court decision as soon as they are available and then decide on the next steps," said Tina Kulow, spokeswoman for Facebook Germany in an email. Facebook Ireland, which provides service to Germany, is committed to following European data protection regulations, she said.