Europe fines Facebook €110m for misleading information on WhatsApp takeover

Facebook allegedly used profile matching between WhatsApp and Facebook accounts for advertising purposes, having originally told the European Commission twice that it wouldn't do so.
Written by Jonathan Chadwick, Contributor

The European Commission has fined Facebook €110 million for providing "misleading information" regarding its takeover of WhatsApp in 2014.

The fine is in accordance with the commission's Merger Regulation, which requires companies in a merger investigation to provide the correct information for the commission to review mergers -- something that Facebook failed to do, according to the commission.

Upon Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp in a $19 billion deal in 2014, Facebook informed the commission it would be unable to establish automated data matching between Facebook and WhatsApp user accounts, according to the commission.

However, last August, Facebook-owned WhatsApp changed its privacy policy to say that the parent company would gain access to users' telephone numbers and other pieces of data, such as the mobile operating system being used, and the user's phone number and screen resolution, in order to help Facebook target ads.

The social media giant then committed two separate infringements through misleading information, according to the commission, in both the merger notification form and the reply to the commission's request for information.

The commission also suggested that despite Facebook's statements in 2014 to the contrary, the possibility of automatically matching Facebook and WhatsApp user accounts was at the time a possibility -- something that Facebook was "well aware of".

"Today's decision sends a clear signal to companies that they must comply with all aspects of EU merger rules, including the obligation to provide correct information," said EC commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

"The commission considers that Facebook staff were aware of the user-matching possibility, and that Facebook was aware of the relevance of user matching for the commission's assessment, and of its obligations under the Merger Regulation," the commission added.

Last September, following the changes to WhatsApp's privacy policy, WhatsApp was ordered to stop sharing user data with Facebook in Germany by Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, and for Facebook to delete data already collected from the 35 million WhatsApp users within the country.

After Facebook's failure to comply with the cease-and-desist request, a court case was initiated by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations in January, asking the Berlin county court for an injunction.

The social network appealed to the courts to suspend the decision, which was rejected last month.

Facebook also agreed to pause its collection of WhatsApp user data in the UK for advertising purposes following a probe by the Information Commissioner's Office late last year.

Also revealed this week were several of Facebook's failures to comply with the French Data Protection Act, resulting in a sanction of €150,000 against the social media giant.

Investigations by France's National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) revealed that among six infringements by Facebook, the social media site compiled a mass of users' personal data to display targeted advertising, as well as collected data on browsing activity on third-party websites using the "datr" cookie without prior knowledge.

The action was part of a collaborative approach by the data protection authorities of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Hamburg to carry out investigations on Facebook.

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