Facebook ordered to stop combining WhatsApp and Instagram user data in Germany

Facebook ordered to stop combining WhatsApp and Instagram user data in Germany

Facebook ordered to stop combining WhatsApp and Instagram user data in Germany

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany's federal regulator of business competition, ruled that Facebook can no longer use data that it collects across different platforms without explicit permission from users. This includes assigning data from Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp and Instagram, as well as third-party websites, to a Facebook user account.

Collecting data from third-party websites and assigning it to Facebook would only be allowed if users give their voluntary consent. The FCO explicitly states that users expect platforms to combine their data to some extent, and this is an essential component of social networks' business models. As a result, the office has released a ruling stating that data from either of the two stand-alone apps can not be combined with that of Messenger without user consent at the Facebook end.

Federal Cartel Office (FCO) chief Andreas Mundt will announce his findings in a press conference at 10:00 am (0900 GMT) in Bonn.

In a statement, Facebook said that it disagrees with the Bundeskartellamt and will appeal its ruling "so that people in Germany continue to benefit fully from all our services".

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Without such consent, Facebook would be free to collect data but would not be allowed to pool it with other information on a particular individual. In addition, the FCO found that the gathering of increasing amounts of data also allows Facebook to strengthen its monopoly position further to the detriment of other social network providers. There's an obvious regulatory clash hollowing out one of GDPR's key tasks: the prevention of different data protection regimes across the EU.

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".

In its own statement, Facebook said it would appeal the FCO's decision.

Facebook said the German regulator had confused the company's "popularity" with the concept of being "dominant" in the market for the purposes of competition law.

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The ruling burdens the company to apply better measures to track and use user data. Essentially, if Facebook combines its messaging services so that they are different in name and design only, it will be much more hard, if not impossible, to then separate out and spin off Instagram and WhatsApp as separate companies. Where consent is not given, the data must remain with the respective service and can not be processed in combination with Facebook data.

"Popularity is not dominance", they complained, in a blog post arguing that less than 60 percent of German social media users use Facebook, "yet the Bundeskartellamt finds it irrelevant that our apps compete directly with YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and others" - as if controlling over half the market made them an underdog.

The use of "voluntary" here is important because it means Facebook can't try to coerce users into agreeing to the data merger. Then, according to the BBC, the government body's order will become law, and Facebook will be compelled to make changes.

"The GDPR specifically empowers data protection regulators - not competition authorities - to determine whether companies have lived up to their responsibilities", it said.

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"The Bundeskartellamt underestimates the fierce competition we face in Germany, misinterprets our compliance with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), and threatens the mechanism European law provides for ensuring consistent data protection standards across the EU".

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