Germany bans Facebook from combining user data collected from Instagram and WhatsApp

Facebook logo on Samsung phone

The German cartel office, the Bundeskartellamt, has imposed new restrictions on how Facebook processes the data it gathers about users of Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.

Germany's antitrust watchdog has hit the social network with a ban on combining user data it gathers from different sources, unless it has explicit consent from users. While Facebook is still free to gather data about Instagram users and WhatsApp users, this data cannot be automatically combined with data gathered via a users' Facebook account.

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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 was unhappy with the way the social networking giant combined user data from different sources, often without users being aware of what was happening.

The watchdog expressed is disapproval of Facebook's practices:

Among other conditions, private use of the network is subject to Facebook being able to collect an almost unlimited amount of any type of user data from third party sources, allocate these to the users' Facebook accounts and use them for numerous data processing processes. Third-party sources are Facebook-owned services such as Instagram or WhatsApp, but also third party websites which include interfaces such as the "Like" or "Share" buttons. Where such visible interfaces are embedded in websites and apps, the data flow to Facebook will already start when these are called up or installed. It is not even necessary, e.g., to scroll over or click on a "Like" button. Calling up a website with an embedded "Like" button will start the data flow. Millions of such interfaces can be encountered on German websites and on apps.

Even if no Facebook symbol is visible to users of a website, user data will flow from many websites to Facebook. This happens, for example, if the website operator uses the "Facebook Analytics" service in the background in order to carry out user analyses.

Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt, says: "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. 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 user accounts".

He adds:

The combination of data 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. In future, consumers can prevent Facebook from unrestrictedly collecting and using their data. The previous practice of combining all data in a Facebook user account, practically without any restriction, will now be subject to the voluntary consent given by the users. Voluntary consent means that the use of Facebook's services must not be subject to the users' consent to their data being collected and combined in this way. 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 Bundeskartellamt's ruling means that:

  • Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp and Instagram can continue to collect data. However, assigning the data to Facebook user accounts will only be possible subject to the users' voluntary consent. Where consent is not given, the data must remain with the respective service and cannot be processed in combination with Facebook data.
  • Collecting data from third party websites and assigning them to a Facebook user account will also only be possible if users give their voluntary consent.

While the restrictions only apply in Germany, the ruling means that other regulators around the world are likely to take note. Facebook says that it plans to appeal against the watchdog's decision.

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