German Antitrust authority finds that Facebook abused its dominance of the social network market to track and collect users’ personal data

Antitrust is beginning to bite the big tech companies

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Today the German Antitrust authority (Bunderskartellamt), whose job it is to keep companies’ power in check, found that Facebook abused its dominance of the social network market to track and collect users’ personal data in ways users do not know about.

The head of the authority stated that “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.”

This finding confirms that Facebook and other big tech companies are exploiting our data to extend their market power at the expenses of other companies and our privacy. There is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. Because of their dominance, some companies are able to impose conditions on users. These conditions tend to include excessive and exploitative collection and processing of users’ personal data. In other words, the privacy harms are directly caused by the business models of companies in dominant positions which can impose excessive collection of data on people who have become “captive users.”

Privacy International recently showed that Facebook is able to track also non-users outside its platform through Facebook Business Tools.

Most importantly this finding confirms an important shift in the way antitrust authorities should address the role of personal data in assessing market powers and the distortion of competition by companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech giants. When assessing market power, competition authorities have tended to focus on price and outputs, giving little to no consideration to other factors affecting competition, such as consumer welfare, quality, innovation, and privacy; and as well as the different relevant markets at play in these cases (e.g. advertising, social media, search engines, online entertainment, etc.) This is beginning to change.

Privacy International is calling on other antitrust authorities (in Europe, the US and elsewhere) to consider the important competition implications of the collection of personal data, particularly when done at scale.