German Ruling to Restrict Data Gathering by Facebook

Last week the German antitrust authority, Bundeskartellamt, ruled that the manner in which Facebook gathers, merges, attributes to and uses data in user accounts is an abuse of its dominant market position. This follows a three-year investigation into the social media giant’s business practices by the German federal cartel office.

Facebook users are obliged, under the terms of service, to give their consent to have their data shared across other apps owned by the social media giant, including Instagram and WhatsApp, and also to having their browsing behavior tracked after they leave the Facebook platform and visit other websites.

Following its investigation into the business practices of Facebook, the Bundeskartellamt last week concluded that the company’s practices regarding data gathered by its services means that the platform users may be victims of ‘exploitative’ abuse. In addition to this the Bundeskartellamt also found that this practice creates an unfair advantage for Facebook over it competitors as they (the competition) are not in the same position to gather such huge and detailed levels of data.

The Bundeskartellamt hopes to prevent Facebook from combining user data that it gathers through its other applications with the data it gathers through the Facebook platform. This would also incorporate stopping Facebook from collecting and linking together ‘data collected on third-party websites’ including cookie data Facebook uses to target people with advertising and remarketing.

The organisation revealed that subscribers who visit third-party websites are tracked if they simply click on any website that includes a Facebook ‘like’ button, whether or not they have clicked the button. Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt said: “Above all, we see the collection of data outside the Facebook social network and its inclusion in the Facebook account as problematic.”

He added: “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,” Mundt said in a statement. The combination of data sources substantially contributed to the fact that Facebook was able to build a unique database for each individual user and thus to gain market power.”

This follows from earlier rulings and controversies that Facebook has faced in relation to how it manages data collection including data gathered on Facebook fan pages, the General Data Protection Regulation investigation into how the group targets its users with advertising and the Cambridge Analytica case in the United Kingdom.

Facebook initially tried to defend itself by claiming that is only subject to Irish law in relation to this as that is the jurisdiction where its European Union headquarters is located. This was dismissed as the company operates on a local level in Germany. The body also ruled that Facebook’s privacy settings page is insufficient for providing consent as all of the boxes are automatically ticked to allow this. This should be an opt-in rather than an opt-out option.