Germany's antitrust agency is hitting Facebook with "far-reaching restrictions" on the social media network's practice of merging its users' data gleaned from WhatsApp, Instagram and millions of third-party websites and apps. The decision can be appealed; if it stands, it would force Facebook to add more ways for its users to protect their privacy.
"In the authority's assessment, Facebook's conduct represents above all a so-called exploitative abuse," said the Bundeskartellamt, or Federal Cartel Office. Andreas Mundt, the office's president, said on Thursday that Facebook "was able to build a unique database for each individual user and thus to gain market power."
Facebook did that, Mundt's office said, by compiling data from its website, apps and Facebook-owned services — along with seemingly any website that has Facebook's "Like" or "Share" buttons, or a Facebook login box built into their pages. Even if a website has no visible signs of a link to Facebook, it could still send user data to the company by using the Facebook Analytics service in the background.
People are subject to the data tracking, the German agency said, "even if users have blocked web tracking in their browser or device settings." It added that the integration of Facebook interfaces also allows the company to track people's online behavior, "even if they are not logged into or registered with Facebook."
Through those practices, Facebook has been able to build profiles of its users that are far more complete than if it relied solely on recording their activities within the social network. And it was done, Mundt said, without users providing their voluntary and affirmative consent.