EU Watchdog Accuses Facebook, Google of Privacy Shenanigans

Facebook and Google have manipulated users into sharing data using so-called “dark patterns,” such as misleading wording and confusing interfaces, according to a report the Norwegian Consumer Council released Wednesday. The practices nudged users toward accepting privacy options that favored the tech companies rather than themselves, the NCC found. Facebook and Google have no intention of providing users with an actual choice, the NCC has claimed, and their use of dark patterns constitutes a violation of the General Data Protection Regulation implemented across Europe last month.
Some of the dark patterns: providing misleading privacy-intrusive default settings; hiding privacy-friendly choices; and giving users the illusion of control while at the same time presenting them with take-it-or-leave-it options. Privacy-friendly options tend to require more effort from the user, according to the NCC. The companies have been manipulating users into sharing information, the NCC alleged, noting that such behavior shows a lack of respect for individuals or their personal data and privacy. Users who declined to choose certain settings were subject to deletion of their accounts in some cases.
The Norwegian trade organization, which has been joined by other consumer and privacy groups in Europe and in the United States, has called for European data protection authorities to investigate whether Facebook and Google have been acting in accordance with the GDPR and U.S. rules. If the companies are found to be in violation of the GDPR, they could face fines of up to 20 million euros (US$24 million) or 4 percent of their annual global turnover.
When it comes to the collection and sharing of user data, the default settings provided by the tech companies favor the companies over the end user. Users rarely change pre-selected settings, and both Facebook and Google have set the least-friendly privacy choices as their defaults. ore worrisome is that the sharing of personal data and the use of targeted advertising routinely are presented as being beneficial to the user.
The wording and design suggests users actually benefit from having their data shared. At the same time, users who might want to opt for stricter privacy controls receive warnings about lost functionality. The NCC singled out Google for designing a privacy dashboard that actually discourages users from changing or even taking control of their settings, and for implying that users benefit from the default settings. The NCC noted that Facebook users actually are given no substantial choice even after they take the extra effort to change their respective settings. Microsoft received some praise for giving equal weight to privacy-friendly and unfriendly options in its Windows 10 operating system settings.
Although the NCC report specifically calls out Facebook and Google, as well as Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system, this could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how software firms have been handling the issue of privacy.

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