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Facebook tells Belgian government its use of English invalidates privacy case

Ha! Ha! You said 'cookie'

Cookie Monster

As legal arguments go, this may not be the strongest.

Facebook has told the Belgian government that it cannot proceed with its privacy case against the social media giant because of its use of English terms like "cookie", "browser" and "server".

The company was told back in November to stop tracking people without Facebook accounts within 48 hours or be fined 250,000 euros a day.

Since the company did not inform visitors or users that it installed cookies in their browsers, or ask for permission to do so, it was breaking Belgium's privacy laws, the country's privacy watchdog argued, and a Belgian court agreed.

Facebook grumpily agreed soon after but not before promising to appeal the ruling and warning that by blocking its information gathering code, it was putting people's online security at risk.

That appeal is now underway and according to the company's Belgian lawyer, Dirk Lindemans, the fact that the Belgian court order contains common computer terminology in English is a reason to throw out the case altogether. He told Belgian newspaper De Tijd: "Justice must be understood by all. Otherwise it's a slippery slope towards class justice."

The logic is that some Belgians would not understand the terms server, home, browser or cookie, and so would be disadvantaged. Instead, the sentences with the words in should have been written in Dutch, Facebook's response argues. The fact they weren't is grounds for annulment.

Le what?

The argument is truly bizarre given that computer terms are often imported into European languages for the simple reason that they often entirely new and refer to entirely new things. "Cookie" meaning piece of tracking code for example is called "cookie" just about all over the world.

Even the notoriously protective French incorporate English terms all the time, with the occasional effort to displace them typically being ignored or mocked by French citizens who really couldn't care less. "Le weekend" jumps to mind.

Fortunately this is not Facebook's only legal argument to the court order. It also claims that Belgian law doesn't apply since it processes all its data in Ireland.

That's also not on very strong ground given the recent decision by the European Court of Justice over Max Schrems lawsuit brought against Facebook - which resulted in the Safe Harbor agreement being torn up. The ECJ judgment made it plain that each country's data protection authority was entitled to act independently.

If data is being gathered on Belgian citizens, sat in Belgium, it's not hard to imagine that Belgian courts will imagine it falls within their jurisdiction. ®

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