Germany’s top court, on Tuesday, ruled that Facebook abused its market position by illegally harvesting user data from multiple sources in the country, directing the company to comply to a similar decision which was made by the country’s antitrust watchdog last year. The ruling essentially prohibits the company from processing users’ data that it collects from its own services such as WhatsApp and Instagram, and other third-party websites and apps, without their consent, thus dealing a potential blow to the company’s entire business model.

The court held that Facebook used its dominance to collect data of users of third-party sites that used its “like” and “share” buttons, among other things. “The lack of choice of Facebook users not only affects their personal autonomy and the protection of their right to informational self-determination, which is also protected by the GDPR,” it said. “There are neither serious doubts about Facebook’s dominant position on the German social network market nor the fact that Facebook is abusing this dominant position…As the market-dominating network operator, Facebook bears a special responsibility for maintaining still-existing competition in the social networking market,” the court added.

Previous antitrust ruling

In February last year, Germany’s antitrust watchdog had ruled that Facebook used its market position as a social media giant to track users illegally across the internet in order to maintain its position as the dominant online advertiser. The findings said that Facebook’s requirements from users allow it to “limitlessly amass every kind of data generated by using third-party websites.” The decision was hailed at the time for its unique reading of antitrust laws to tackle issues of data privacy.

However, Facebook had successfully appealed the antitrust ruling in a lower court in August. It also asked judges in the top court during the current hearing to keep the antitrust judgement suspended until the case in the lower court comes to a close, according to Bloomberg, which also said that the hearing will now return to the lower court in Dusseldorf. It’s worth noting that this decision may not be the last word since Germany’s lower court could possibly rule in Facebook’s favour, as pointed out by the New York Times.

Other transgressions

Only last month, Canada’s antitrust watchdog ordered Facebook to pay a $6.5 million (Canadian $9 million) fine for making “false or misleading claims about the privacy of Canadians’ personal information on Facebook and Messenger”. The Canadian regulator said that while Facebook gave the impression that users could control who could access their personal information, it “did not limit the sharing of users’ personal information with some third-party developers”.

Facebook, in January 2020, started allowing users around the world to see and control their data that third parties had shared with the platform. Users can see a copy of that information and also clear it from their accounts, using the “clear history tool”. However, we had pointed out then, that the tool doesn’t really delete users’ data available with Facebook or other third parties, but only severs the connection between the two — meaning that Facebook will continue receiving users’ data from other platforms that use its business tools, but will not link that data to a user’s Facebook profile.