Facebook, Google and Microsoft accused of breaching GDPR with 'unethical' user manipulation

Facebook on a phone

Following Facebook's massive privacy scandal, the European Union took a strong stance on the issue and passed the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, to protect the data everyday users share with companies online.

It picked Facebook, Google, and Microsoft for the study as they are some of the world's largest digital service-providers. As a effect, users were bombarded with a lot of e-mail and pop-ups labeled as "update to privacy policies".

As a result of the Norwegian Consumer Council report, eight consumer advocacy groups are calling on the FTC to "investigate the misleading and manipulative tactics of Google and Facebook in steering users to "consent" to privacy-invasive default settings".

The 44-page report cites examples of how Facebook, Google and, to a lesser degree, Microsoft have used dark patterns to their benefit. The NCC report, titled "Deceived By Design", explains just how these dark patterns are being implemented by internet companies.

The report said this nudging of users toward "the least privacy friendly options" is unethical, and questions whether consent given in these circumstances is in fact explicit, informed and freely given.

A collection of privacy advocacy groups joined Forbrukerrådet in writing to the Chair of the European Data Protection Board, the EU body in charge of the application of GDPR, to bring the report to its attention. This means that a service is configured to protect privacy and transparency. Their privacy must be protected even if they don't opt out of data collection options.

Besides privacy intrusive default settings and hiding away privacy-friendly choices, the service providers were found to be using "misleading wording", giving users "an illusion of control", and having a "take-it-or-leave-it" approach.

Facebook's GDPR pop-up failed the data protection by default test, according to the report.

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In terms of design, the user is shown a blue box to accept facial scanning, but the option to decline is hidden within a page only accessible by clicking on "manage data settings", making acceptance the easier option.

Facebook was equally flawed in its choices around facial recognition, which it has recently introduced in Europe after a six-year hiatus due to privacy concerns.

The other groups that signed the FTC letter are Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Public Citizen and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

If the aim is to lead users in a certain direction, making the process toward the alternatives a long and arduous process can be an effective dark pattern.

Facebook also released a statement to Gizmodo that is very reminiscent of the one they gave late last month when privacy activist Max Schrems filed official complaints against tech companies, three of which were against Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram and Whatsapp: "We have prepared for the past 18 months to ensure we meet the requirements of the GDPR".

The investigators also criticized Facebook for wording that strongly nudged users in a certain direction.

They also obscure some of these settings so that the user can not know that the more privacy intrusive option was pre-selected.

The wording Facebook uses states that "if you keep face recognition turned off, we won't be able to use this technology if a stranger uses your photo to impersonate you".

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