Germany Prohibits Merging Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp User Data

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany's Federal Cartel Office, which deals with antitrust issues, has ruled that Facebook will no longer be able to merge users’ data from Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other properties under one account without voluntary consent.

This ruling is a blow to Facebook, which is planning to unify the Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp backends, according to a January report from Reuters.

The Federal Cartel Office ruled that Facebook will be able to continue gathering user data with various services and applications, but none of that data can be combined under a single account without the user’s voluntary consent. This should apply not just to data gathered from Instagram, WhatsApp, Like buttons on various websites or the Facebook Pixel analytics service tracking you across the web, but also to Facebook’s data bartering with data brokers, device makers and other institutions. Facebook will no longer be able to associate any of that data to a German user's Facebook account without their voluntary consent.

The use of “voluntary” here is important because it means Facebook can’t try to coerce users into agreeing to the data merger. The regulator’s order explicitly said that Facebook can not block users from using its services if they disagree with the data merger from different sources.

The German regulator also noted that the merger of user data from all sorts of sources is what has allowed Facebook to consolidate its market position. The regulator declared Facebook a monopoly due to the company owning over 95 percent of the social media market in Germany. However, the agency noted that while SnapChat, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn aren't included in this stat, "even if these services were included in the relevant market, the Facebook group with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp would still achieve very high market shares that would very likely be indicative of a monopolisation process." In Germany, monopolies have to be obey a different sort of rules, governed by antitrust laws.

The agency also accused Facebook of abusing this market monopoly by telling users that when they agree to the Terms of Service for the Facebook platform they also agree to having data collected about them from other sources associated with their accounts. The regulator said this is against European Union data protection laws.

Furthermore, this exploitative use of data puts Facebook’s competitors at a disadvantage, according to Andreas Mundt, president of Germany's Federal Cartel Office:

“Today data are a decisive factor in competition. In the case of Facebook they are the essential factor for establishing the company’s dominant position. On the one hand there is a service provided to users free of charge. On the other hand, the attractiveness and value of the advertising spaces increase with the amount and detail of user data. It is therefore precisely in the area of data collection and data use where Facebook, as a dominant company, must comply with the rules and laws applicable in Germany and Europe.”

The German agency’s ruling is not yet final, and Facebook has one month to appeal to the to the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • husker
    Exactly how would the German government punish Facebook if they merged the data anyway? These are American companies. Lawsuit? Block Facebook from all German users? Good luck in the next elections!
  • BulkZerker
    I'm sure if Facebook curated "hate speech" for the local PDs to comb through they'd change their tune.
  • s1mon7
    Actually as opposed to the above comments I'm very grateful to Germany. The idea to merge Whatsapp with Instagram and Facebook would be a huge hit to our privacy and frankly would ruin a great product. The Whatsapp founder was fighting against it for years, I'm glad there is a meaningful pushback. People are leaving and criticizing Facebook, while everyone's still on Whatsapp and the fact it just works, is simple and doesn't bombard users with data (and doesn't sell users data) keep it as a very respected messenger. Merging it with Facebook would ruin it.
  • emeralds1000000
    21750142 said:
    Exactly how would the German government punish Facebook if they merged the data anyway? These are American companies. Lawsuit? Block Facebook from all German users? Good luck in the next elections!

    They wont block facebook , but they can block the ads ... all EU advertisement will be not allowed and facebook will lose alot from that.

    Also they can put fines on the EU branches.
  • hellwig
    I don't know the reasons behind keeping Whatsapp and Instagram "separate" from the main Facebook entity, but I have to think this would go away if Facebook just merged them altogether into the "Facebook experience". Whatsapp by Facebook, Instagram by Facebook. If they made it clear they were all essentially one service, I don't think the EU could stop them.

    Sort of like how Google can use your YouTube and eMail and search history (and browsing history if you use Chrome or their DNS), because it's all one service with one account. Or at least, they can do that for now. You could still have a stand-alone Whatsapp (just as Google has about 20 separate IM apps, Duo, Hangouts, etc...), providing the same experience, just re-working the legal things behind the scenes.