German antitrust authorities restrict Facebook data use

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. — File

Germany's antitrust watchdog has banned Facebook from combining data collected from its social platforms without user consent. Mundt announced the anti-trust watchdog's findings in Bonn, Germany, Thursday.

"In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts", said Andreas Mundt, Bundeskartellamt's president, in a press release on Thursday. Facebook says that it plans to appeal against the watchdog's decision.

"In the authority's assessment, Facebook's conduct represents above all a so-called exploitative abuse", said the Bundeskartellamt, or Federal Cartel Office.

This should apply not just to data gathered from Instagram, WhatsApp, Like buttons on various websites or the Facebook Pixel analytics service tracking you across the web, but also to Facebook's data bartering with data brokers, device makers and other institutions.

Collecting data from third-party websites and assigning them to Facebook would only be allowed if users give their voluntary consent.

Even if no Facebook symbol is visible to users of a website, user data will flow from many websites to Facebook.

Set against this backdrop, the social network is facing a storm of criticism.

"If I understand things correctly, this move would intensify the pooling of data", said Mundt. The FCO's orders come after a three-year investigation into the company's data collection practices.

Vinje said it would be tough for Facebook to persuade the court that the Cartel Office's definition of the market for social media, and its dominance, were misguided.

"The GDPR specifically empowers data protection regulators - not competition authorities - to determine whether companies have lived up to their responsibilities", it said.

Germany's national competition regulator, the Federal Cartel Office (FCO), has ordered Facebook to stop combining user data from its apps, including WhatsApp and Instagram, as well as third-party apps, without voluntary consent from users, reports Reuters. Essentially, if Facebook combines its messaging services so that they are different in name and design only, it will be much more hard, if not impossible, to then separate out and spin off Instagram and WhatsApp as separate companies. However, the agency noted that while SnapChat, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn aren't included in this stat, "even if these services were included in the relevant market, the Facebook group with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp would still achieve very high market shares that would very likely be indicative of a monopolisation process". Instead, he said, its German users must be allowed to opt out of data collecting and processing while still using Facebook's network and services.

As part of complying with the GDPR, Facebook said it had rebuilt the information its provides people about their privacy and the controls they have over their information, and improved the privacy "choices" that they are offered. As an example, it cited "identifying abusive behavior and disabling accounts tied to terrorism, child exploitation and election interference across both Facebook and Instagram".

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