Thursday, 14 February 2019

German regulator restricts Facebook data sharing

On 07.02.2019, Bundeskartellamt, the German competition regulator, issued a decision against Facebook restricting its processing of user data. 

The Bundeskartellamt points out that Facebook is in a dominant position with a market share of 95%. The closure of Google+, one of the competitors of Facebook, has intensified its dominance. Other companies, such as Twitter or Linkedin are considered to only operate in part of Facebook's market.

The decision states that the way Facebook collects, merges and uses data between its subsidiaries ammounts to abuse of dominant position, under competition law. One of the most troubling practices employed by Facebook is that it collects third-party data on users in an almost unlimited way and attaches all of these data to the users' facebook accounts. Data is being collected not only by other Facebook owned services, but by any website that has an embedded facebook button. It is worth noting that the data of the users was collected even if they would not interact with the facebook buttons (even if they  didnt 'like' a page).

What is even more concerning is that data is collected even if there is no kind of facebook sign on the page, when the website is using facebook analytics. This widespread collection of data allows facebook to form very detailed profiles of its users. 

With its decision, the Bundeskartellamt forbids this practice. Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp will still be able to collect data on their users. However, Facebook will be prevented from assigning this data to a single facebook account, unless they have the voluntary consent of the users. However, the consent of the users is already required for third-party websites. The decision requires Facebook to make changes to its terms of service and data processing. The processing of data from third parties without the consent of users needs to be substantially limited. Facebook will have to come up with proposals on how to achieve that.

This decision comes after the publication of the first reports on the Code of practice against disinformation, signed by Facebook and other large online companies such as Google, Twitter and Mozilla. Facebook has to strengthen its commitments to empower consumers and boost cooperation with fact-checkers. However, if Facebook is serious about making their platform a fertile ground for those who seek to spread disinformation, it should first and foremost protect its users and their data from those who want to abuse them.

The decision is not yet final, as Facebook will have one month to appeal in German courts. It remains to be seen whether Facebook will challenge the decision. This decision serves to point out the increasing intersections between consumer law, data protection law and competition law. The Bundeskartellamt points out that their investigation required close cooperation with data protection authorities.

This is the dawn of a new age where the traditional compartmentalisations of law may not serve us as well  as in the past. Consumer law will also have to adapt in order to address challenges arising from novel business models, and especially in relation to data protection.

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