French consumer group sues Google, Facebook and Twitter over privacy policies

In a civil action, UFC-Que Choisir is asking the three social networks to make their user agreements clearer and fairer

French consumer protection group UFC-Que Choisir has issued Facebook, Twitter and Google with a summons to appear before the Paris High Court, which it has asked to strike out what it says are unfair or illegal clauses in the companies' user agreements.

The group said the three companies had not reacted to letters its lawyers sent last June asking them to modify the agreements governing how they handle users' personal information. The terms and conditions are still just as unreadable, with up to 100 hypertext links, many of them to pages that are not in French, it said Tuesday.

The way the contracts are presented is a problem, said UFC-Que Choisir legal counsel Amal Taleb, because French law requires that they be written in French, and users have no idea whether the documents linked to, some of which also contain hyperlinks, form part of the agreement.

The group wants the companies to make their user agreements shorter and clearer, putting them on a single page and, crucially, emailing users a copy of the contract as it stands at the moment they agree to it, she said. That's because the companies often modify their terms and conditions, only publishing the latest terms on their site. They do so without renewed agreement from users, and without providing sufficient notice -- or indeed without any notice -- of the changes. Facebook, for example, has given only seven days' notice of some changes to its terms and conditions, while French law considers at least one month reasonable, Taleb said.

Despite the letters sent last June, the agreements continue to authorize the companies to collect, modify, store and exploit information about users and their social network, the group said. A particular problem, it said, is the way the companies grant themselves an unlimited, worldwide license to use or share the information with their business partners, without the explicit agreement of users.

Among other things, that could be in breach of French intellectual property law that gives the creators of works such as texts and photos certain rights over them, Taleb said.

As a result, UFC-Que Choisir is asking the judge to order the companies to delete the clauses it considers illegal or abusive -- 180 of them in the case of one company.

The group's summonses are on their way to the headquarters of Google and Twitter in the U.S., and to Facebook's office in Ireland, to which the company has designated control of the personal information of users outside the U.S., Taleb said, although the companies are already aware of the legal action, she said.

The three companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The companies have an opportunity to provide written responses to UFC-Que Choisir and to the court, which can also seek clarification from all parties, Taleb said, so it may be some months before the judge makes a ruling.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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