Unroll your lists of ten famous Belgians (mine is mostly tennis players, fashion designers and Audrey Hepburn), because there is a new name to add: Willem Debeuckelaere, president of the Belgian privacy commission. Even the name of this organisation delights me, with its faint suggestion that Belgian privacy may not be like other kinds. And as a partially Flemish person myself, I can only be proud that it is Belgium which has lost patience with Facebook and its somewhat jaunty attitude to privacy issues.
So much so that they are taking the company to court over its alleged breaches of Belgian and European privacy laws (I told you Belgian privacy was different). They threatened legal action if Facebook didn’t respond to their concerns, and have followed through on the threat. Gratifyingly, Facebook’s spokesperson has described this as ‘theatrical’, an adjective which is virtually never used to describe anyone Belgian, except for Hercule Poirot.
It’s not often used to describe lawsuits either. But the Belgians have lost patience because of a report which suggests that Facebook tracks anyone who visits any Facebook page, whether they have an account or not. In other words, if you inadvertently clicked on a link to what you thought was a company’s website, and it led you instead to their Facebook page, the company may be tracking you. Their surveillance might not limited to people who have ‘given consent’ by signing up to Facebook.
There’s something refreshing about a country which worries about its citizens’ privacy, instead of muttering about having nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, as our government tends to. For Belgians, it appears there is nothing peculiar in having nothing to hide, but still not wanting to share every byte of your online browsing with a global corporation.
I have long believed that the only way to fight this kind of corporate snooping is with intentional algorithm-tricking fibs. If companies force you to hand over personal data when you sign up for a service, the least you can do is pick a gender/age/nationality/title at random to screw with their marketing. I for one have been a very successful Romanian prince and an Algerian pensioner for some time. Now I’m thinking I might add Belgian privacy campaigner to my list of alter-egos.
Charles Clarke may have left it until disappointingly late to have good ideas about education (if the word ‘former’ appears in your job description, it’s usually a bad sign for getting stuff done), but the former education secretary is onto something with his belated suggestion to scrap compulsory acts of worship in schools. There can be few things more bizarre in our education system than forced prayer.
As a godless soul, I spent years sighing my way through prayers at school. I can’t pretend I felt remotely more Christian at the end of it. I would have preferred doing something else (anything else) instead. In fact, schools could do all kinds of interesting and stimulating things in the time that is currently set aside for praying. Over a term, those minutes would really add up: you could read a brilliant book together, or take some exercise, or learn small, practical skills. Prayer could be an extra-curricular activity.
Snakes, asked Indiana Jones as he looked down in horror. Why’d it have to be snakes? The police officers who responded to a call in Sutton, South London, about a snake on a patio (the less successful, lower-budget sequel to Snakes on a Plane, surely) probably agree with Indy. After spending a full hour in a tense stand-off with the reptile, they discovered it was, in fact, a garden ornament. According to one local resident, the snake had paint peeling off it, which has widely been regarded as an obvious indicator that it was a fake snake. But real snakes slough off their skin, don’t they? It’s like it was trying to trick them.