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Not your Puppets: An update on the Euroconsumers class action against Facebook

An interview with Marco Pierani

Earlier this year, Euroconsumers launched a class action against Facebook, calling on the company to respect the privacy of its users and provide compensation when their data is being misused. Four Consumers International members are involved in this campaign; Altroconsumo (Italy), Deco Proteste (Portugal), OCU (Spain) and Test A-chats / Test-Ankoop (Belgium).

We spoke with Marco Pierani, Director of Public Affairs & Media Relations at Euroconsumers, to get an update on the context behind the campaign, the response so far, and what consumer organisations around the world can do to support the campaign.

What made Euroconsumers decide to launch this action against Facebook?

In March, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded, we immediately sent a formal warning letter to Facebook but, in light of further analysis, we understood that Cambridge Analytica was just the tip of an iceberg of larger violations committed by Facebook against all its users which - as confirmed by the opening of a proceeding of the Italian Competition Authority for unfair commercial practices – have been victims of a continuous and massive misuse of data by the social network or other apps operating on the platform. By collecting large volumes of data and sharing it with third parties without users being fully aware of how their data is being used, Facebook has violated both data protection legislation and fundamental consumer law, obtaining undue and huge profits. We believe Facebook exercises an abusive influence on its registered users. In exchange for the use of the platform, users must give full consent for the use of personal information concerning them, with many users being unaware of exactly what they are consenting to.

What are you calling for in the class action, and how are you encouraging consumers to take part?

 With our four coordinated class actions launched in Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, enacted by Consumers International members; Test-Aankoop/Test-Achats, Altroconsumo, OCU and Deco-Proteste respectively, we are calling on Facebook to give its users a minimum compensation of 200 Euros for the massive privacy infringements and unfair commercial practices the platform is responsible for. It is not our aim to boycott Facebook. On the contrary, we want Facebook to take action by respecting consumers’ rights, their freedom of choice and their legitimate economic interests. With these intentions in mind, our campaign has chosen the following hashtags to promote our call to action: #NotYourPuppets and #MyDataIsMine 

Why is the concept of consumers being in control of their personal data so important to Euroconsumers?

We observe that in the last few years, reduced competition amongst the big players in the tech industry has meant that, despite the technological development remained strong and constant, the added value transferred to consumers by big technology companies and social media platforms has significantly reduced. Meanwhile, increasingly, consumers are using online platforms such as Facebook to express their fundamental rights as citizens.

It is important that we, as consumer organisations, play the role of rebalancing the digital ecosystem and ensuring that consumers are not only protected against data misuse but compensated accordingly. We believe that by enhancing consumers’ economic interest within the digital market, we can begin to create a healthier, fairer and more competitive digital ecosystem.

On one hand, we want to become the frontrunners of private enforcement, acting against clear and unacceptable infringements of consumers’ rights (like in the case of our class action vs Facebook). On the other hand, and this is even more important – we are ready to work with leading, responsible market players to leverage the benefits of technological evolutions to the whole ecosystem, creating a digital world that works for everyone. We believe that the data economy can only flourish, and regain consumer trust, by restoring consumers and citizens to a central position in its evolution. It’s time to put back consumers in the driving seat of their own data. Consumers need to be able to meaningful decisions about where, when and with who they want to share they data, when they want to stop sharing it and when they want their data back. The monetization of data should always be possible, if consumers clearly express informed consent and have a fair share of the value created by their data.

What support has there been for the campaign in the countries where it is active?

At the moment about 75,000 Facebook users have joined our four class actions – more than 25,000 both in Belgium and Spain, over 17,000 in Italy and almost 5,000 in Portugal. In the websites of Test-Achats, OCU, Altroconsumo and Deco Proteste you can see the number growing with a counter at these respective pages:

Test A-chats, Belgium: https://www.test-achats.be/actions-collectives/facebook 

OCU, Spain: https://www.ocu.org/especiales/misdatossonmios/  

Altroconsumo, Italy: https://www.altroconsumo.it/azioni-collettive/facebook 

DECO Proteste, Portugal: https://www.deco.proteste.pt/acoes-coletivas/os-meus-dados-sao-meus 

We are satisfied with the response so far, but we also know that we need to grow our support in this battle. The more consumers we represent, the stronger our voice will be. That’s why we plan to launch further conventional and non-conventional communication activities, from September onwards, to reach a larger number of consumers. We feel a heavy responsibility on our shoulders, being very aware – as Facebook should be – that the tools at our disposal for the protection of consumer rights have now become – as it is clear in this case – a key vehicle to enforce citizens’ fundamental rights within digital platforms. We feel that our role, as organisations representing the consumer movement, is expanding and evolving. We won’t accept that the technology we created to expand our freedom evolves into a system that coerces and controls us. It is not real innovation if it does not bring benefits to the end consumers, to citizens, to the people!

Have Facebook responded to the campaign?

After our March cease and desist letter - as we do always in these cases – we requested meetings with Facebook representatives but eventually, after a couple of meetings, their answers to our clear claims were unfortunately not satisfactory and that’s why we proceeded with the class actions.

What advice would you give to other consumer organisations around the world who are interested in launching a similar campaign?

We remain at disposal of other consumers organisations around the world that want to get more detailed information. Of course, we understand that it could be very challenging to replicate our actions in other jurisdictions but there are easier ways to collaborate that could still contribute to our common goal. For example, by sharing information about our campaign internationally, as the class action enters the next stage of legal action.