Facebook Again Acting Like A Spoiled Teenager About Data And Privacy

Facebook and Privacy

Caught violating curfew once again, Facebook responds, “But what is time, really?\”

At 15, Facebook is mature by Silicon Valley standards, but it remains the rebellious teenager of tech. I’m not talking about the company’s employee demographics, but about its behavior in data and privacy. A serial violator of every parental rule and social norm – breaking into others’ lockers, launching smear campaigns against Principal Soros, smoking joints with the juvies from Cambridge – Facebook responds to exposure of its transgressions by playing the misunderstood victim.

The latest and perhaps best case in point followed the ruling by Germany’s anti-trust regulator (the Bundeskartellamt/Federal Cartel Office, or FCO) that Facebook may no longer combine the data from the social platform with other Facebook properties (e.g., WhatsApp), or non-Facebook third party sites, without obtaining users’ consent.

Finding that Facebook is a “dominant company” (that is, a near-monopoly that leaves no meaningful competitors for users to switch to), the FCO announced 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.”

Facebook finds this, you know, just so, so hurtful and unfair. In a post titled “Why we disagree with the Bundeskartellamt” (aka, “Why my parents suck”), Facebook first pleads that, far from dominant, they are but one entre on the vast, Denny’s-like menu of digital options. “We face fierce competition in Germany, yet the Bundeskartellamt finds it irrelevant that our apps compete directly with YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and others.”

But What Competition?

Admittedly, you probably haven’t thought of switching from Facebook to YouTube, but that’s because you existed when Y2K was a thing. Expand your mind, oldster, and you’ll see that Facebook is just one of many ways to “connect, share, and discover.” To illustrate, Facebook offers a neat graphic that documents how they compete with, say, Skype for messaging, Twitch for video, Flipboard for news, Yelp for recommendations, Joom for commerce, Meetup for events, Lovoo for dating, and Medium for content.

It’s fierce competition!

From “Why We Disagree With the Bundeskartellamt,” downloaded 15 February 2019

Except . . . isn’t there one important category missing from that neat graphic? Could it be social networking? And would that be because they ran out of space, or because the pop-out would show Facebook competing with . . . well, who? Friendster? Orku? Yeah, exactly. That’s why the FCO determined that Facebook has a social networking market share of 95% in Germany, based on daily active users.

Bottom line: Suggesting that Facebook faces fierce competition from the likes of Tinder and TikTok is like the owner of the one bar in an otherwise dry town saying his customers could just as well drink NyQuill or sniff glue.


Speaking of bars, Facebook suddenly blurts out, “My blood alcohol level is just fine!” (i.e. “Facebook complies with the GDPR.”) Ok, thanks for sharing, FB. Not that it’s really relevant to the question of a near-monopoly forcing users to accept data aggregation and profiling.

But now that you mentioned it . . . . First, it’s up to the data protection authorities (DPAs), not Facebook, to determine if it is GDPR compliant. Second, there’s a lot of evidence that it isn’t, including a complaint filed by Max Schrems’ non-profit NOYB asserting that Facebook deploys – guess what? – “forced consent.” The French DPA recently found Google guilty of forced consent (and fined them €50 million) based on an almost identical complaint from NOYB, filed on the same day.  (See my analysis here.)

Bottom line: It’s smart of Facebook to proclaim it obediently adheres to the GDPR. Not because that has much to do with the FCO’s decision, but rather because Facebook is aware that it’s presently being investigated for the very same transgressions by the DPAs, who don’t give a damn about “dominant company” status.

Finally, Facebook submits that any supposed transgressions were all in service of the greater good. Forced aggregation of personal data, you see, helps Facebook “protect people’s safety and security, including, for example, identifying abusive behavior.” It’s not about violating your privacy and targeting you with ads for stuff you may not want or need – it’s about fighting “terrorism, child exploitation, and election interference”! Who could object to that?

Bottom line: Indeed, who could object – which, however, forces one to ask why Facebook didn’t avoid the whole mess with the FCO by asking for consent since, on their argument, they would almost certainly get it? The answer, of course, is that even if they obtained permission to use the data to fight child exploitation and other noble causes, they would be constrained to use it only for those purposes; targeted advertising is another thing – and so another consent request – altogether.

So sorry, Facebook. For all of your clever attempts to defend yourself, it’s terribly revealing that you never deny that you force users to agree to “practically unrestricted” data aggregation. Go to your room, Facebook, and don’t come out until you’ve grown up.

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