The case was bought by UFC-Que Choisir, a French consumer group. They accused Twitter’s terms and conditions of containing 256 terms and conditions which were ‘abusive or illegal in nature’.
Twitter selling data for commercial gain
The main concern which UFC-Que Choisir had raised related to how Twitter allowed itself to exploit the content of user’s accounts for commercial gain. Under the existing terms and conditions, they were able to use tweets and even photos without user consent.
In April of this year, Twitter confirmed for the first time that it was selling user data commercially. In 2015, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at the now infamous Cambridge Analytica consultancy paid for one day of access and was able to gather a ‘random sample’ of public tweets.
Up until that point, Twitter was generally perceived as a relatively privacy-friendly social media site.
They publish a pretty comprehensive bi-annual transparency report and have taken a number of positive recent steps including trialling a possible encrypted messenger service and refusing to censor Infowars content, despite coming under considerable pressure to do so.
But the French court has ruled that such exploitation of user data without consent must stop and, from now on, explicit user consent will be required if Twitter is to be able to use such content in this way.
The court also stressed that such consent needed to be gained through a more transparent way than merely ticking a box to agree to terms and conditions.
UFC-Que Choisir had argued that this approach did not amount to users expressly giving consent for the exploitation of their personal data. The French court agreed.
In handing down the ruling, the court also fined Twitter 30,000 euros (£26,900). This amount was derided by UFC-Que Choisir, given that in 2017 Twitter’s global turnover was in excess of $2.1 billion.
But the paltry fine is far less significant than the ruling itself and the possible precedent that it sets.
Ruling could have global implications
Twitter has not yet responded publicly to the ruling. They do have one month to appeal against the decision, but it remains to be seen if they will do so. It is also not completely clear whether the ruling will have implications only for Twitter users in France, or those globally.
Earlier this year, when Twitter had to adopt the EU’s new GDPR into its terms and conditions, those changes were made globally. At the time, Twitter stated that its privacy policies were ‘a singular document’ which applied to all users regardless of their geographic location.
If this remains the case, it seems likely that people around the world will benefit from this decision. But the commercial implications of this ruling could be significant, and it would be naïve to assume that Twitter will not deviate from this stance to preserve income streams globally.
A powerful precedent
After the ruling was handed down, UFC-Que Choisir expressed their hope that it could set a precedent which would force other social media sites to make similar changes.
They are apparently currently bringing similar cases through the French legal system against both Facebook and Google, with judgements expected to be handed down on both in the next few months.
If this Twitter ruling stands, it is hard to see how the same French court could not reach a similar verdict against those two tech giants too.
There is some way to go before that scenario is played out and it would be foolish to assume that the full financial clout of three of the internet’s biggest companies will not be deployed to get their way.
Facebook and Google also do not have the same global privacy policies as Twitter, so those ruling may not have such a global impact.
But for French internet users, their online privacy is looking a good deal more secure than it was last week. And the principal of users retain control of their online data is looking more entrenched than was previously the case, in France at least.