Berlin court rules Facebook Friend Finder ′unlawful′ | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 07.03.2012
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Berlin court rules Facebook Friend Finder 'unlawful'

A Berlin court says that Facebook cannot copy user e-mails without consent. The plaintiff, a German consumer group, called the decision a 'milestone.'

ARCHIV: Das Logo des Online-Netzwerkes facebook, aufgenommen in Muenchen durch eine Lupe von einem Computer-Bildschirm eines Laptops (Foto vom 11.10.10). Bundesverbraucherschutzministerin Ilse Aigner (CSU) staerkt den Datenschutzbeauftragten von Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein in der Auseinandersetzung mit dem sozialen Netzwerk Facebook den Ruecken. Ich begruesse es, dass die zustaendigen Datenschutzbehoerden offensichtliche Rechtsverstoesse nicht auf sich beruhen lassen und konsequent einschreiten, sagte Aigner der Neuen Osnabruecker Zeitung (Montagausgabe vom 24.10.11) laut Vorabbericht vor einer Anhoerung von Facebook-Europachef Richard Allan im Bundestags-Unterausschuss Neue Medien am Montag. (zu dapd-Text) Foto: Joerg Koch/dapd

Facebook will likely appeal the ruling

A court in Berlin has ruled that Facebook's “Friend Finder,” which allows users to input e-mail addresses and invite them to the site, is not legal in Germany.

The Friend Finder feature allows users to input e-mail addresses to the site, and then Facebook invites them to the network. The court found that Facebook's practice of copying a user's address book to Facebook's databases, even by people who are not Facebook users, and not providing adequate warnings and descriptions about this practice, is unlawful.

The court also found in its Tuesday decision that portions of the company's terms of service, which gives Facebook the worldwide right to use and publish users' content, is invalid.

Some German legal scholars have applauded this new decision, and say that this may be a bellweather for future legal action in Germany against Facebook.

“The court is right,” Thomas Hoeren, a professor of IT and media law at the University of Münster, wrote in an e-mail sent to DW.

“The standard terms of Facebook have always violated German law - this is the first court decision to state that clearly. Others will follow, definitely.”

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge, in this November 7, 2011 file photo. Facebook is expected to submit paperwork to regulators on Wednesday morning for a $5 billion initial public offering and has selected Morgan Stanley and four other bookrunners to handle the mega-IPO, according to media reports. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced near-constant legal and political pressure from Germany

Facebook likely to appeal

The civil lawsuit against Facebook was filed in November 2010 by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations, better known by its German acronym, VZBV.

"The verdict is a milestone,” said Gerd Billen, the group's chief executive, in a German-language statement published on the VZBV website. “Facebook and others have to respect data protection in Europe.”

Facebook, for its part, has been relatively quiet on the new ruling.

"We will take a close look into the details of [the] court decision as soon as they are available and then decide on the next steps,” said a Facebook spokesperson in an e-mail sent to DW.

Typically, it takes weeks or months for German courts to publish the full legal ruling once an initial decision has been reached.

“Facebook Ireland Ltd, which provides our service to people in Germany, is committed to adhering to European data protection principles as demonstrated by the recent report of the Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner,” added the Facebook spokesperson.

However, it seems likely that Facebook will appeal this decision.

Mounting legal pressure

The social networking giant has been faced with persistent legal pressure from German regulators in recent years, as data protection officials and others have challenged some of Facebook's company policies.

In January 2011, Facebook, which has over 10 million members in Germany, gave its users more control over how the site uses their private address collection and approached non-users can block Facebook's e-mail altogether.

This move was in response to Hamburg's privacy commissioner, Johannes Caspar, who began pushing for fine proceedings in 2010. Caspar also argued in 2011 that Facebook's facial recognition feature is illegal under German law.

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Neil King

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