Germany's competition authority has accused Facebook of abusing its market dominance to "limitlessly amass every kind of data" on people.
The Bundeskartellamt informed the American social media giant on Tuesday of its "preliminary legal assessment" that by forcing third-party websites and apps – including WhatsApp, Instagram and those using embedded Facebook APIs – to share their data with Facebook, it was abusing its position.
"We are mostly concerned about the collection of data outside Facebook's social network and the merging of this data into a user's Facebook account," said Bundeskartellamt president Andreas Mundt.
He noted that this data gathering "even happens when, for example, a user does not press a 'like button' but has called up a site into which such a button is embedded." Visiting a webpage with a Facebook 'like' button on it phones homes some info about the netizen to the Mark-Zuckerberg-run business, in other words.
Users are not aware that all their information is being scooped up and sent to the mothership, Mundt noted, and concluded: "We are not convinced that users have given their effective consent to Facebook's data tracking and the merging of data."
As a result, the Zuckerberg Express "violates mandatory European data protection principles."
The finding is based on a determination [PDF] that Facebook effectively owns the social media landscape. "The authority assumes that Facebook is dominant on the German market for social networks," a statement from the authority read. It says that Facebook has around 30 million users per month in Germany of which 23 million use the service on a daily basis.
Google+? Ha! Ha! Ha!
While it noted the existence of other services like Google+, the authority argued that "on account of direct network effects, the substitutability of their products with Facebook is limited, despite the fundamental comparability of the products."
Interestingly, the Bundeskartellamt argued that "professional networks" like LinkedIn, messages services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, and other social media like YouTube and Twitter are not part of the same market as Facebook. "Even though these services are in parts competitive substitutes for Facebook, from the users' perspective they serve a complementary need," it argued.
"Users are practically 'locked in'," the authority complained, "and find it extremely difficult to switch to one of Facebook's competitors." And by gathering ever-increasing amounts of data on addicts, Facebook solidifies its dominance by providing advertisers with highly targetable ads – making it even harder for competitors to get a foot in the market.
"Facebook has superior access to the personal data of its users and other competition-relevant data. Because social networks are data-driven products, access to such data is an essential factor for competition in the market," the watchdog argued. "If other companies lack access to comparable data resources, this can be an additional barrier to market entry."
The Bundeskartellamt also noted that its determination only covers the use of third parties, and that it is open to considering whether Facebook's own data gathering is also an abuse of its market position.
"Users cannot expect data which is generated when they use services other than Facebook to be added to their Facebook account to this extent," the watchdog complained, adding that to its mind "consumers must be given more control over these processes and Facebook needs to provide them with suitable options to effectively limit this collection of data."
Facebook will be given a chance to comment on the Bundeskartellamt's allegations and justify its actions plus suggest possible solutions before the competition authority makes a final determination.
After Facebook's response, the authority can then decide whether to drop the whole case, accept changes proposed by the company, or introduce sanctions against it. A final decision is "not expected before early summer 2018."
A spokesperson for Facebook was not available for immediately comment. ®