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German Competition Watchdog Calls Facebook Data Collection ‘Abusive’

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The preliminary ruling, ahead of a final decision next year, could mean limits on how Facebook collects and processes European user data

818963-germany-wallpaperGermany’s competition regulator has warned Facebook its collection of data on users and transfer of that information to the US may be “abusive” due to the social network’s dominant position in the country.

Facebook said the assessment it had market dominance in Germany or other countries was “inaccurate”.

The preliminary ruling, which emerged from a probe by Germany’s cartel office, the FCO, begun in 2016, found Facebook does have a dominant position amongst Germany’s social media, that it limits users’ ability to switch and that signing up for an account resulted in the company “being allowed to limitlessly amass every kind of data generated by using third-party websites and merge it with the user’s Facebook account”.

The finding is the latest hurdle for Facebook from European regulators, following a ruling by France’s data protection agency on Monday that concluded Facebook’s transfer of user information from its WhatsApp subsidiary violated French privacy law.

Third-party data harvested

Regulatory action could ultimately place limits on Facebook’s processes for generating revenues, which involve studying users’ browsing habits and the way they use tools that it owns, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, and using that data to display targeted advertising.

The FCO’s ruling focused on Facebook’s mandatory tracking of the third-party websites users access, including recording each time they visit a page that includes a Facebook “Like” button, regardless of whether they click on that button or not.

“Above all we see the collection of data outside the Facebook social network and its inclusion in the Facebook account as problematic,” stated FCO president Andreas Mundt.

He said the FCO was “not convinced that users have given their effective consent to Facebook’s data tracking”.

Facebook responded that it doesn’t consider itself dominant in Germany or any other country.

‘We are not dominant’

“Although Facebook is popular in Germany, we are not dominant,” said Yvonne Cunnane, Facebook’s head of data protection in Ireland, in a blog post, adding the company planned to work with regulators and address the FCO’s concerns.

The FCO expects its final decision will not arrive until the summer of next year at the earliest, after which it may drop the case, seek assurances from Facebook or ban certain practices.

Facebook’s transfer of extensive user data to its head offices in the US has caused controversy before, due to separate disclosures of extensive data collection within the country by US intelligence agencies.

Concerns that Europeans’ personal data was being harvested by the US’ National Security Administration (NSA) led to the renegotiation of the deal that allows private firms to pass data between Europe and the US.

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