Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, or Bundeskartellamt, on Thursday banned Facebook from combining user data from its various platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram without explicit user permission.
The decision, which comes as the result of a nearly three-year antitrust investigation into Facebook’s data gathering practices, also bans the social media company from gleaning user data from third-party sites unless they voluntarily consent.
“With regard to Facebook’s future data processing policy, we are carrying out what can be seen as an internal divestiture of Facebook’s data,” Bundeskartellamt President Andreas Mundt said in a release. “In [the] 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 noted that combining user data from various 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.”
Experts agreed with the decision. “It is high time to regulate the internet giants effectively!” said Marc Al-Hames, general manager of German data protection technologies developer Cliqz GmbH. “Unregulated data capitalism inevitably creates unfair conditions.”
Al-Hames noted that apps like WhatsApp have become “indispensable for many young people,” who feel compelled to join if they want to be part of the social scene. “Social media create social pressure,” he said. “And Facebook exploits this mercilessly: Give me your data or you’re an outsider.”
He called the practice an abuse of dominant market position. “But that’s not all: Facebook monitors our activities regardless of whether we are a member of one of its networks or not. Even those who consciously renounce the social networks for the sake of privacy will still be spied out,” he said, adding that Cliqz and Ghostery stats show that “every fourth of our website visits are monitored by Facebook’s data collection technologies, so-called trackers.”
The Bundeskartellamt’s decision will prevent Facebook from collecting and using data without restriction. “Voluntary consent means that the use of Facebook’s services must [now] be subject to the users’ consent to their data being collected and combined in this way,” said Mundt. “If users do not consent, Facebook may not exclude them from its services and must refrain from collecting and merging data from different sources.”
The ban drew support and calls for it to be expanded to other companies.
“This latest move by Germany’s competition regulator is welcome,” said Morten Brøgger, CEO of secure collaboration platform Wire. “Compromising user privacy for profit is a risk no exec should be willing to take.”
Brøgger contends that Facebook has not fully understood digital privacy’s importance. “From emails suggesting cashing in on user data for money, to the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company is taking steps back in a world which is increasingly moving towards the protection of everyone’s data,” he said.
“The lesson here is that you cannot simply trust firms that rely on the exchange of data as its main offering, Brøgger added, “and firms using Facebook-owned applications should have a rethink about the platforms they use to do business.”
Al-Hames said regulators shouldn’t stop with Facebook, which he called the number-two offender. “By far the most important data monopolist is Alphabet. With Google search, the Android operating system, the Play Store app sales platform and the Chrome browser, the internet giant collects data on virtually everyone in the Western world,” Al-Hames said. “And even those who want to get free by using alternative services stay trapped in Alphabet’s clutches: With a tracker reach of nearly 80 percent of all page loads Alphabet probably knows more about them than their closest friends or relatives. When it comes to our data, the top priority of the market regulators shouldn’t be Facebook, it should be Alphabet!”