Tag: Facebook

Privacy issues in the antitrust legal framework: “the Facebook case”

21. July 2022

European countries were among the first to introduce privacy laws in the context of antitrust and in the competition law framework. As a result of this implementation, in 2019 the German Federal Cartel Office took action to stop Facebook (now a part of Meta Inc.) from further processing personal data that had been acquired through third – party installations (most of all referring to cookies). The proceedings on the matter are still ongoing. Recently also the Irish Data Protection Authority took position against Facebook (which has in the meantime become Meta Inc.), by preventing the American tech giant to transfer user data to the United States due to data safety issues. Also in this matter the parties are still in debate.

In 2014 Facebook notoriously purchased messaging company WhatsApp for almost 22 bln. dollars. At the time Europe did not give much thought to the potential consequences of this merger. This operation was the object of an opinion of the European Commission; in the Commission’s mind the two companies’ privacy policies were way different, and the thought that Facebook now had control over all of the data collected by WhatsApp did not sit well with the European authorities. Another key argument brought forward by the Commission was the lack of an effective competition between the two companies. However, no further action was taken at the time.

A few years later, academic research highlighted the mistake made by the European Commission in not considering the enormous meaning personal data have for these tech companies: due to the fact that personal data are considered to be so – called “nonprice competition”, they play a key role in the strategies and decision – making of big data – driven business models. In particular, when a company depends on collecting and using personal data, it usually lowers the bar of privacy protection standards and raises the number of data collected. This argument was brought forward by the U.K.’s Competition Agency, which stated that by considering the enormous importance personal data have gained in the digital market, companies such as Facebook do not have to face a strong competition in their business.

These arguments and the growing unrest in various DPAs around the globe has brought in 2020 to the notorious investigation of Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission of the United States. In particular the FTC accused Meta Inc. (in particular Facebook) of stifling its competition in order to retain its monopoly of the digital market. On one hand an American court dismissed the claims, but on the other hand the high risks connected with an enormous data collection was highlighted. In particular, according to Section 2 of the Sherman Act, the State has:

  • To prove that a company is in fact a monopoly, and
  • That it has to harm consumers

This does not apply directly to the case, but the FTC argued that the harm to the consumers is to be seen in Meta Inc.’s lowering privacy standards. The case is still pending as of July 2022.

This merger showed how much privacy and antitrust issues overlap in the digitalized market.

In the following months, policymakers and enforcers both in the United States and in the European Union have been struggling to establish new sets of rules to better regulate mergers between companies whose business model relies on the collection of personal data, and above all they called for more cooperation between privacy and antitrust agencies.

DPC sends draft decision on Meta’s EU-US data transfers to other European DPAs

14. July 2022

On July 7, 2022, it became known that the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) had forwarded a draft decision concerning Meta’s EU-US data transfers to other European DPAs for consultation. Having to respect a four-week-period, European DPAs may comment on this draft or formulate objections to it. In such an event, the DPC would be given an additional month to respond to the objections raised (article 60 GDPR).

According to information available to politico, the DPC is intending to halt Meta’s EU-US transfer. The DPC is said to have concluded in its out of “own volition” draft decision that Meta can no longer rely on the SCCs when it transfers their user’s personal data to US based servers. In other words, even though Meta has implemented the EU’s SSCs, it cannot be ruled out that US intelligence services may gain access to personal data of data subjects using facebook, instagram and other meta products.

Following the striking down of both, the Safe Harbour Agreement in 2015 and the EU-US Privacy Shield in 2020 by the Court of Justice of the European Union, this draft decision seems to question the legality and compatibility of EU-US data transfers with the GDPR for a third time.

In this context it is worthy to consider a statement Meta made in its annual report to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC):

“If a new transatlantic data transfer framework is not adopted and we are unable to continue to rely on SCCs or rely upon other alternative means of data transfers from Europe to the United States, we will likely be unable to offer a number of our most significant products and services, including Facebook and Instagram, in Europe, which would materially and adversely affect our business, financial condition, and results of operations.”

Despite the possibility of a halt of Meta’s EU-US data transfers, there is reason to believe that this DPC initiated procedure will be continued in the future and that it will go beyond the previously mentioned four-weeks timeline. “We expect other DPAs to issue objections, as some major issues are not dealt with in the DPC’s draft. This will lead to another draft and then a vote”, says NOYB’s Max Schrems who filed the original complaint to the DPC. Hence, it seems rather unlikely that an instant stop of an EU-US transfer will occur. Instead, we could rather expect article 65 GDPR to be triggered meaning that the EDPB would be required to issue a final decision, including a vote, on the matter.

With no concrete EU-US transfer agreement in sight and the ongoing uncertainty on whether the DPC will eventually succeed with its draft decision, this matter continues to be of big interest.

Twitter fined $150m for handing users’ contact details to advertisers

30. May 2022

Twitter has been fined $150 million by U.S. authorities after the company collected users’ email addresses and phone numbers for security reasons and then used the data for targeted advertising. 

According to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, the social media platform had told users that the information would be used to keep their accounts secure. “While Twitter represented to users that it collected their telephone numbers and email addresses to secure their accounts, Twitter failed to disclose that it also used user contact information to aid advertisers in reaching their preferred audiences,” said a court complaint filed by the DoJ. 

A stated in the court documents, the breaches occurred between May 2013 and September 2019, and the information was apparently used for purposes such as two-factor authentication. However, in addition to the above-mentioned purposes, Twitter used that data to allow advertisers to target specific groups of users by matching phone numbers and email addresses with advertisers’ own lists. 

In addition to financial compensation, the settlement requires Twitter to improve its compliance practices. According to the complaint, the false disclosures violated FTC law and a 2011 settlement with the agency. 

Twitter’s chief privacy officer, Damien Kieran, said in a statement that the company has “cooperated with the FTC at every step of the way.” 

“In reaching this settlement, we have paid a $150m penalty, and we have aligned with the agency on operational updates and program enhancements to ensure that people’s personal data remains secure, and their privacy protected,” he added. 

Twitter generates 90 percent of its $5 billion (£3.8 billion) in annual revenue from advertising.  

The complaint also alleges that Twitter falsely claimed to comply with EU and U.S. privacy laws, as well as Swiss and U.S. privacy laws, which prohibit companies from using data in ways that consumers have not approved of. 

The settlement with Twitter follows years of controversy over tech companies’ privacy practices. Revelations in 2018 that Facebook, the world’s largest social network, used phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication for advertising purposes enraged privacy advocates. Facebook, now Meta, also settled the matter with the FTC as part of a $5 billion settlement in 2019. 

 

CJEU considers representative actions admissible

29. April 2022

Associations can bring legal proceedings against companies according to a press release of the European Court of Justice (CJEU).

This is the conclusion reached by the Court in a decision on the proceedings of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv), which challenged Facebook’s data protection directive. Accordingly, it allows a consumer protection association to bring legal proceedings, in the absence of a mandate conferred on it for that purpose and independently of the infringement of specific rights of the data subjects, against the person allegedly responsible for an infringement of the laws protecting personal data, The vzbv is an institution that is entitled to bring legal proceeding under the GDPR because it pursues an objective in the public interest.

Specifically, the case is about third-party games on Facebook, in which users must agree to the use of data in order to be able to play these games on Facebook. According to the association, Facebook has not informed the data subjects in a precise, transparent and understandable form about the use of the data, as is actually prescribed by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Federal Court of Justice in Germany (BGH) already came to this conclusion in May 2020 however, it was not considered sufficiently clarified whether the association can bring legal proceedings in this case.

The EU Advocate General also concluded before that the association can bring legal proceeding in a legally non-binding statement.

Thus, the CJEU confirmed this view so that the BGH must now finally decide on the case of vzbv vs. facebook. It is also important that this decision opens doors for similar collective actions against other companies.

Irish DPC fines Meta 17 Million Euros over 2018 data breaches

16. March 2022

On March 15th, 2022, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has imposed a fine on Meta Platforms 17 million euros over a series of twelve data breaches, which happened from June to December 2018.

The inquiry of the DPC which led to this decision examined the extent to which Meta Platforms complied with the requirements of Arti. 5(1)(f), Art. 5(2), Art. 24(1) and Art. 32(1) GDPR in relation to the processing of personal data relevant to the twelve breach notifications.

As the result of this inquiry, the DPC found that Meta Platforms infringed Art. 5(2) and 24(1) GDPR.  In particular, the DPC assessed that Meta Platforms failed to have in place appropriate technical and organisational measures which would enable it to readily demonstrate the security measures that it implemented in practice to protect the data of its European users in the case of those twelve data breaches.

The processing under examination constituted a “cross-border” processing, and as such the DPC’s decision was subject to the co-decision-making process outlined in Art. 60 GDPR. This resulted in all of the other European supervisory authorities to be engaged in this decision as co-decision-makers.  While objections to the DPC’s draft decision were raised by two of the European supervisory authorities, consensus was achieved through further engagement between the DPC, and the supervisory authorities concerned.

“Accordingly, the DPC’s decision represents the collective views of both the DPC and its counterpart supervisory authorities throughout the EU,” the DPC stated in their press release.

A Meta spokesperson has commented on the decision, stating, “This fine is about record keeping practices from 2018 that we have since updated, not a failure to protect people’s information. We take our obligations under the GDPR seriously and will carefully consider this decision as our processes continue to evolve.”

Apps are tracking personal data despite contrary information

15. February 2022

Tracking in apps enables the app providers to offer users personalized advertising. On the one hand, this causes higher financial revenues for app providers. On the other hand, it leads to approaches regarding data processing which are uncompliant with the GDPR.

For a year now data privacy labels are mandatory and designed to show personal data the app providers access (article in German) and provide to third parties. Although these labels on iPhones underline that data access does not take place, 80% of the analyzed applications that have these labels have access to data by tracking personal information. This is a conclusion of an analysis done by an IT specialist at the University of Oxford.

For example, the “RT News” app, which supposedly does not collect data, actually provides different sets of data to tracking services like Facebook, Google, ComScore and Taboola. However, data transfer activities have to be shown in the privacy labels of apps that may actually contain sensitive information of viewed content.

In particular, apps that access GPS location information are sold by data companies. This constitutes an abuse of data protection because personal data ishandled without being data protection law compliant and provided illegally to third parties.

In a published analysis in the Journal Internet Policy Review, tests of two million Android apps have shown that nearly 90 percent of Google’s Play Store apps share data with third parties directly after launching the app. However, Google indicates that these labels with false information about not tracking personal data come from the app provider. Google therefore evades responsibility for the implementation for these labels. Whereby, Apple asserts that controls of correctness are made.

Putting it into perspective, this issue raises the question whether these privacy labels make the use of apps safer in terms of data protection. One can argue that, if the app developers can simply give themselves these labels under Google, the Apple approach seems more legitimate. It remains to be seen if any actions will be taken in this regard.

EU Advocate General : Member States may allow consumer protection associations to bring representative actions against infringements of the protection of personal data

16. December 2021

On December 2nd, EU Advocate General Richard de la Tour published an opinion in which he stated that EU member states may allow consumer protection associations to bring representative actions against infringements of rights that data subjects derive directly from the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). In doing so, he agrees with the legal opinion of the Federation of the Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen und Verbraucherverbände – Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband e.V. (Federation of German Consumer Organisations (“vzbv”)), which has filed an action for an injunction against Facebook in German courts for non-transparent use of data.

The lawsuit of the vzbv is specifically about third-party games that Facebook offers in its “App Center”. In order to play games like Scrabble within Facebook, users must consent to the use of their data. However, Facebook had not provided information about the use of the data in a precise, transparent and comprehensible manner, as required by Article 13 GDPR. The Federal Court of Justice in Germany (“Bundesgerichtshof”) already came to this conclusion in May 2020, but the Bundesgerichtshof considered it unclear whether associations such as the vzbv have the legal authority to bring data protection violations to court. It argues, inter alia, that it can be inferred from the fact that the GDPR grants supervisory authorities extended supervisory and investigatory powers, as well as the power to adopt remedial measures, that it is primarily the task of those authorities to monitor the application of the provisions of the Regulation. The Bundesgerichtshof therefore asked the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) to interpret the GDPR. The Advocate General now affirms the admissibility of such an action by an association, at least if the EU member state in question permits it. The action for an injunction brought by the vzbv against Facebook headquarters in Ireland is therefore deemed admissible by the EU Advocate General.

The Advocate General states, that

the defence of the collective interests of consumers by associations is particularly suited to the objective of the General Data Protection Regulation of establishing a high level of personal data protection.  

The Advocate General’s Opinion is not legally binding on the CJEU. The role of the Advocate General is to propose a legal solution for the cases to the CJEUin complete independence. The judges of the Court will now begin their consultations in this case.

High Court dismisses Facebook’s procedural complaints in Data Transfer Case

18. May 2021

On Friday, May 14th 2021, the Irish High Court dismissed all of Facebook’s procedural complaints in a preliminary decision from Ireland’s Data Protection Commission regarding data transfers from the EU to the U.S. It rejected Facebook’s claims that the privacy regulator had given it too little time to respond or issued a judgment prematurely.

If finalized, the preliminary decision could force the social-media company to suspend sending personal information about EU users to Facebook’s servers in the U.S. While the decision of the High Court was only a procedural one, experts warn that the logic in Ireland’s provisional order could apply to other large tech companies that are subject to U.S. surveillance laws. This could potentially lead to a widespread disruption of trans-Atlantic data flows.

Facebook addressed the preliminary decision, stating that Friday’s court decision was procedural and that it planned to defend its data transfers before the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC). It added that the regulator’s preliminary decision could be “damaging not only to Facebook, but also to users and other businesses.”

However, the Irish DPC still needs to finalize its draft decision ordering a suspension of data transfers and submit it to other EU privacy regulators for approval before it comes into effect. That process could take months, not counting potential other court challenges by Facebook.

Irish DPC launches investigation into Facebook data leak

26. April 2021

On April 14th, 2021, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) announced it launched an investigation into Facebook’s data leak reported earlier this month (please see our blog post here). The inquiry was initiated on the Irish DPC’s own volition according to section 110 of the Irish Data Protection Act. It comes after a dataset of 533 million Facebook users worldwide was made available on the internet.

The Irish DPC indicated in a statement that, “having considered the information provided by Facebook Ireland regarding this matter to date, the DPC is of the opinion that one or more provisions of the GDPR and/or the Data Protection Act 2018 may have been, and/or are being, infringed in relation to Facebook Users’ personal data”. The Irish DPC further stated that they had engaged with Facebook Ireland in relation to this reported issue, raising queries in relation to GDPR compliance, to which Facebook Ireland furnished a number of responses.

The launch of an investigation by the Irish authorities is significant due to the fact that Ireland remains home to Facebook’s European headquarters. This means the Irish DPC would act as the lead regulator within the European Union on all matters related to it. However, Ireland’s data watchdog has faced criticism from privacy advocates for being too slow with its GDPR investigations into large tech companies. In fact, the inquiry comes after the European Commission intervened to apply pressure on Ireland’s data protection commissioner.

Facebook’s statement on the inquiry has been shared through multiple media, and it has announced that Facebook is “cooperating fully with the DPC in its enquiry, which relates to features that make it easier for people to find and connect with friends on our services. These features are common to many apps and we look forward to explaining them and the protections we have put in place.”

Facebook data leak affects more than 500 million users

7. April 2021

Confidential data of 533 million Facebook users has surfaced in a forum for cybercriminals. A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that the data came from a leak in 2019.

The leaked data includes Facebook usernames and full name, date of birth, phone number, location and biographical information, and in some cases, the email address of the affected users. Business Insider has verified the leaked data through random sampling. Even though some of the data may be outdated, the leak poses risks if, for example, email addresses or phone numbers are used for hacking. The leak was made public by the IT security firm Hudson Rock. Their employees noticed that the data sets were offered by a bot for money in a hacking forum. The data set was then offered publicly for free and thus made accessible to everyone.

The US magazine Wired points out that Facebook is doing more to confuse than to help clarify. First, Facebook referred to an earlier security vulnerability in 2019, which we already reported. This vulnerability was patched in August last year. Later, a blog post from a Facebook product manager confirmed that it was a major security breach. However, the data had not been accessed through hacking, but rather the exploitation of a legitimate Facebook feature. In addition, the affected data was so old that GDPR and U.S. privacy laws did not apply, he said. In the summer of 2019, Facebook reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay a $5 billion fine for all data breaches before June 12, 2019. According to Wired, the current database is not congruent with the one at issue at the time, as the most recent Facebook ID in it is from late May 2019.

Users can check whether they are affected by the data leak via the website HaveIBeenPwned.

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