Facebook hits back after Germany restricts its data collection

Video AP

Video AP

Germany's antitrust watchdog ordered a crackdown on Facebook's data collection practices after ruling the world's largest social network abused its market dominance to gather information about users without their knowledge or consent.

"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 accounts", Federal Cartel Office chief Andreas Mundt said.

"Users are often unaware of this flow of data and can not prevent it if they want to use the services", Justice Minister Katarina Barley told Reuters news agency, welcoming the ruling. In response, Facebook says it disagrees with the order and will appeal.

In its order, the cartel office said Facebook would only be allowed to assign data from WhatsApp or Instagram to its main Facebook app accounts if users consented voluntarily.

"The European legislator has made sure that there is now a regulation in place that addresses this type of conduct, namely the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)", it added.

Collecting data from third-party websites and assigning them to Facebook would only be allowed if users give their voluntary consent. On the one hand there is a service provided to users free of charge.

Competition watchdog Bundeskartellamt blocked the social media giant from merging user data collected through Instagram, WhatsApp and the millions of third-party websites that track users on behalf of Facebook through the "like" and "share" buttons, with those users' Facebook profiles - unless they explicitly opt in to the tracking.

'On the other hand, the attractiveness and value of the advertising spaces increase with the amount and detail of user data.

The ruling does not yet have legal force and Facebook has a month to appeal, which the social network said it would do. "It is therefore precisely in the area of data collection and data use where Facebook, as a dominant company, must comply with the rules and laws applicable in Germany and Europe".

"The (Cartel Office) has overlooked how Facebook actually processes data and the steps we take to comply with the GDPR", Facebook said.

The German antitrust regulator's powers were expanded in 2017 to include consumer protection in public-interest cases where it could argue that a company - such as Facebook - had so little competition that consumers lack any effective choice.

The restrictions are described as "far-reaching", with the watchdog having said that "the extent to which Facebook collects, merges and uses data in user accounts constitutes an abuse of a dominant position".

It noted that it had been cooperating with the office in its investigation since 2016, and will continue discussions, but would also "defend these important arguments in court".

"Using information across our services also helps us protect people's safety and security, including, for example, identifying abusive behavior and disabling accounts tied to terrorism, child exploitation, and election interference across Facebook and Instagram", the company wrote.

In ruling that Facebook was a "dominant company", the Cartel Office said it was subject to "special obligations under competition law" and "must take into account that Facebook users practically can not switch to other social networks".

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