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CNIL Cites French Yellow Pages Operator for Illegal Use of Social Media Data

26 September 2011

CNIL Cites French Yellow Pages Operator for Illegal Use of Social Media Data

France's Data Protection Authority, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) announced on September 23, 2011 that it had found the French provider of universal telephone directory services, “Pages Jaunes,” guilty of violating several provisions of the French data protection law. The CNIL did not fine Pages Jaunes, but published a detailed warning, listing each privacy violation that the CNIL had identified during its investigation of Pages Jaunes’s activities. 

At issue was Pages Jaunes’s web crawler function, which Pages Jaunes has discontinued. The crawler captured information contained in Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles of persons having the same name as the person being looked up in the directory service. For example, if someone were to look up the telephone number of Pierre Dupont. Pages Jaunes would show Mr. Dupont’s phone number, and would also show information on social media sites relating to persons named Pierre Dupont. The information may include photos, the name of Dupont’s employer, the schools he attended, his geographic location, his profession, etc.

Pages Jaunes argued that the persons whose profiles were copied had been duly informed and consented, because the general terms and conditions of the social media sites indicate that information posted on public profiles may be accessible to search engines. 

The CNIL dismissed this argument. First, a number of the profiles that were being accessed were profiles of minors, and the informed consent of minors for this type of activity cannot be deemed to exist in these circumstances. Second, the reference to “search engines” in the social media sites’ general terms and conditions cannot be deemed to extend to companies whose principal activities are not that of a search engine. The CNIL pointed out that Pages Jaunes is a telephone directory and not a search engine. According to the CNIL, if the terms of use of the social media sites expressly mentioned that data in public profiles could be re-used by Pages Jaunes, that might constitute sufficient information and consent to allow Pages Jaunes to extract data from those sites. The CNIL pointed out that Pages Jaunes had entered into an agreement with one social media site called Trombi pursuant to which Trombi expressly mentioned on its site that data could be accessed and used by Pages Jaunes. For the major social media sites, however, no such agreement with Pages Jaunes existed. 

The CNIL also found that Pages Jaunes had breached its obligation to ensure that only accurate and updated data are processed. According to the CNIL, the profile data that was presented by Pages Jaunes was in many cases outdated by 4 to 12 months.

Pages Jaunes argued that it provided data subjects with the ability, on the Pages Jaunes website, to ask that their profile data not be accessed by Pages Jaunes, but the CNIL found that the procedures put in place by Pages Jaunes were too burdensome. A person must fill out a form and submit to Pages Jaunes proof of his or her identity for each social media site that the person wants to block. The CNIL also criticized Pages Jaunes for keeping logs of IP addresses and the time and date of queries made on the Pages Jaunes site. According to the CNIL, the retention of these data is excessive and not required under French law because Pages Jaunes is neither a telecommunications operator nor a hosting provider. Finally, the CNIL found that Pages Jaunes had violated its obligations with respect to the telephone directory data that it processes, because Pages Jaunes used that data to help refine the results of the social media profile searches. Under French law, universal directory providers are prohibited from using telephone directory data for any purpose other than providing a universal directory service. Pages Jaunes’s use of these data exceeded the scope permitted under French law.

The CNIL’s decision is a useful analysis of issues that are arising when collecting data publicly available on social media sites.

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