Germany’s top court rules Facebook ‘friend finder’ is unlawful

Facebooks trouble with the European Union law and lawmakers gives no sign of abating. After last year’s decision that Facebook should allow FB users to login with fake names, that went against the FB’s real name policy, the German courts today dealt another body blow to the social media giant.

Confirming the rulings of two lower courts, Germany’s highest court has declared Facebook’s “friend-finder” feature as illegal, labelling it an unacceptable and intrusive form of advertising. The feature accesses users’ email address books and sends invitations to contacts who are not yet signed up to Facebook.

The court concluded this was a deceptive marketing practice, confirming decisions by two lower courts in Berlin in 2012 and 2014, which had found that Facebook had violated German laws on data protection and unfair trade practices. The court also said Facebook had not adequately informed members about how it was using their contacts’ data.

The court, which also oversees competition law, said Facebook is obliged to disable the function in Germany. The function is an intrusive form of marketing on behalf of Facebook using data imported by the user, rather than a private message from the user to one of his email contacts, the court said.

The decision narrows the avenues Facebook and other online services have in expanding their networks.

The case was brought by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations or VZBV, Germany’s consumer advocacy association.

“Invitation emails from Facebook to people who have not clearly consented to receiving them are an unacceptable nuisance.”

The ruling stems from a complaint filed by the VZBV in 2010. The Berlin Regional Court ruled in 2012, the emails were illegal advertising since recipients hadn’t consented to being contacted. Facebook’s appeal was rejected in 2014.

A spokeswoman for Facebook in Germany said the company would review the ruling as soon as it is available in full.

“We will study it carefully to assess any impact on our services today,” she said.

The VZBV welcomed the ruling and said in a statement that it will have implications for other services in Germany which use similar forms of advertising.

“After six years of proceedings, the German Supreme Court confirms on all points that Facebook may not use personal information without consent for promotional purposes,” VZBZ chairman Klaus Müller said in a statement.

“The disclosure of the personal data of friends, colleagues or business partners on Facebook friend finder is a sensitive area … Consumers do not want to be harassed.”

“What the judgment means exactly for the current Friends Finder, we now have to find out,” said Mueller.

“In addition to Facebook, other services use this form of advertising to attract new users. They must now probably rethink,” he added.

The Supreme Court also ruled that Facebook did not make it clear enough to users what it does with the data that members upload when using the friend-finder feature.

Facebook’s current Find Friend FAQ explains how it uses imported contacts:

“You can import your list of contacts from other places (ex: your email account, your phone) and we’ll find your friends for you. After Facebook imports your contacts, you’ll have the option to send a friend request to any of your friends that already have a Facebook account or send an invitation to friends who aren’t on Facebook.”

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