During a week where employees are usually winding down ahead of the holidays, Facebook’s lawyers are finding themselves very busy as Germany accuses it of abusing market position with data sharing practices.
Earlier in the week, Facebook has irritated the French with its WhatsApp sharing policies, and now the Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s telco watchdog, has piled on the misery. Facebook is accused of merging data from third-party websites with its own, without the knowledge of the user, to improve its advertising platform.
While this could be deemed a violation of European data protection rules, the German watchdog has gone one step further, believing the social media giant is imposing such practices on third-party websites. Such a use of a dominant market position is regularly frowned upon by European data protection and privacy watchdogs, who are much more stringent than other regulatory bodies around the world.
“We are mostly concerned about the collection of data outside Facebook’s social network and the merging of this data into a user’s Facebook account,” said Andreas Mundt, President of the Bundeskartellamt.
“Via APIs, data are transmitted to Facebook and are collected and processed by Facebook even when a Facebook user visits other websites. This even happens when, for example, a user does not press a ‘like button’ but has called up a site into which such a button is embedded.
“Users are unaware of this. And from the current state of affairs we are not convinced that users have given their effective consent to Facebook’s data tracking and the merging of data into their Facebook account. The extent and form of data collection violate mandatory European data protection principles.”
While it would be fair to assume there are other organizations who operate in the same manner, Facebook is being put under additional pressure because of its success. As a dominant player, to which the Bundeskartellamt believes there are few (if any) alternatives, Facebook has a responsibility to be spotless. Users can’t go elsewhere, and have no option but to accept T&Cs in their entirety, therefore Bundeskartellamt believes the emphasis should be on Facebook to protect the consumer, not the consumer to protect themselves.
In this example, Bundeskartellamt states users could not have expected data from others sites would be used on their own Facebook profiles, therefore a lack of transparency from the giant is a major issue. This is not to say the process of collecting data from third-party websites should be completely scrapped, but Facebook needs to educate the user, offer the option of opt-in, and in the cases of opt-out, provide a suitable alternative.
“Data protection, consumer protection and the protection of competition interlink where data, as in Facebook’s case, are a crucial factor for the economic dominance of a company,” said Mundt.
“On the one hand the social network offers a free service, on the other it offers attractive advertising space, which is so valuable because Facebook has huge amounts of personalised data at its disposal. In these entrepreneurial activities Facebook has to comply with rules and laws. Competition law prohibits a company from abusing its market power.”
As far as punishments go, this should be deemed as nothing more than a slap on the wrist, and a bit of collateral damage to the Facebook reputation. Bundeskartellamt has invited Facebook to comment and offer remedies to the situation, though it is unlikely to be resolved before next summer.
Perhaps a question which we should begin to ask is when the hypocrisy at the internet giants is going to bite them. For all the stances against government intelligence agencies, those who are attempting to negotiate a way around citizen privacy rights, there seems to be no such concern for user protections when advertising revenues are a potential prize. Perhaps we will get to a point where these companies start to live by the data protection and privacy principles which they quote regularly to the authorities.