German state bans Facebook's “like” button

The German state of Schleswig-Holstein is pressuring websites to remove the Facebook “like” button, designed to link their content to the social networking site, by the end of September or face a fine of up to €50,000. Thilo Weichert, the spokesman for the regional office for data protection, has claimed that the button breaches German and EU privacy laws.

Weichert argues that the button permits Facebook to trace users’ internet activity and opinion of pages counts as illegally filing a collection of their browsing activity. “Facebook can trace every click on a website, how long I’m on it, what I’m interested in,” he told the Deutche Presse Agentur (German Press Agency). He also claimed that the US-based company would even collect data on those surfing who weren’t Facebook members, although how or why they would then use the “like” option is unclear.

Weichert has neglected to address precisely how the state is going to tackle this issue: will only sites based in Schleswig-Holstein be required to do this? An overall impression of Schleswig-Holstein as far from being an internet-hotspot (surely most sites have their servers or bases abroad?) doesn’t dispel the problem that policing this problem may require more of an intrusion into individual privacy than the “like” button supposedly presents in the first place.  Schleswig-Holstein has further neglected to point out why the rest of Germany or the EU are yet to be up in arms about this; perhaps because most German or EU citizens realise that cure may be worse than the disease.

Facebook, for its part, defended itself by saying that the button is able to transport user data such as IP addresses, but that this data is kept for the 90 days that the industry permits, not permanently, and that all of its plug-ins comply with EU data protection law.

There is also the matter that the Facebook “like” button seems like a rather arbitrary target. This is a function where users are relatively well versed as to how it works, as the choice of when to it is made clear, rather than the altogether more invisible Google Analytics, which monitors users activity before and after clicking on websites and collects far more “intimate” data, such as the length of time spent on the page and the number of clicks. Granted, this doesn’t match up with a personal profile, making the data anonymous, so if privacy concerns are at the forefront then it would seem less pernicious at first glance. However, the data is given away entirely unawares, anxieties over which are really the crux of a privacy concern in the first place. If users volunteer their data, which they are already doing in droves to the anti-privacy behemoth that is Facebook, then surely concerns over privacy are null and void.

Privacy concerns are frequently the stick that the German government uses to beat the internet with, a cultural hang-up from the dark days of the GDR or even Nazi 20th century where extensive collection of individual data was the lynchpin of both oppressive regimes.

Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin