Privacy concerns Break Facebook’s dominance, German data czar urges

Europe should force Facebook and other social media giants to open up their platforms to rivals more committed to safeguarding personal information, Germany’s top regulator on data protection told Handelsblatt.
Quelle: picture alliance / Fabian Strate
(Source: picture alliance / Fabian Strate)

Europe should tackle the dominance of social media giants like Facebook by forcing them to open themselves up to other data services, Germany’s new data protection commissioner, Ulrich Kelber, said in an interview.

Kelber, on the job since last month, said requiring firms to make their platforms available to rivals would help nurture competitors that offered more data protection.

“I propose requiring communications platforms like WhatsApp and other social media platforms to open themselves up to links with other services, meaning interoperability,” Kelber said. “From a data protection point of view, breaking up the monopolies would be very valuable. By committing the big providers to be interoperable, new data protection friendly competitors would have a better chance, for example.”

Kelber, whose office can force companies or government agencies to change they way they process people’s personal information, added that data protection could act as a quality seal for consumers, making innovations in data protection friendly services more interesting.

“It would be best to regulate this at the EU level. The European market is big enough to enforce that,” he said. Germany could take the lead and drive the idea forward in EU bodies. “A Bundestag decision on this would also be a strong signal.”

Anti-trust crackdown

Kelber's call comes two weeks after Germany’s anti-monopoly watchdog ordered Facebook to ban data mining from different sources, including WhatsApp and websites that use Facebook buttons. Collecting details from different sites without giving consumers the choice to opt out constituted market abuse, the regulator said.

Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the most populous country in the EU, has some of the strictest rules on privacy and data protection in the world. This results partly from its history of surveillance by the Nazis, who collected vast troves of information to sort and murder millions of people, or by East Germany’s secret police to persecute opponents during the Cold War.

Kelber criticized chat service WhatsApp, a Facebook subsidiary. “I don’t accept how WhatsApp handles personal data,” he said, adding that he believed its business model was in breach of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. Kelber noted that German data protection authorities had already lodged various complaints with their Irish counterpart responsible for the company.

His office has no direct authority over Facebook’s practices, because the US company manages its European activities from Ireland.

Global standard emerging

Launched last May, GDPR was establishing itself as a blueprint for data protection worldwide, Kelber added, noting that California had joined other countries in using it as a model and had agreed a similar law that was due to come into force in 2020.

“In Germany too, people have now accepted GDPR, at least that’s the feeling I get,” he said. “Initial starting problems were caused by some not being sufficiently prepared despite the generous implementation period.”

He said he used Twitter because it posed a far lower risk to privacy than WhatsApp.

Heike Anger and Dietmar Neuerer are political correspondents based in Berlin. David Crossland adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the authors: [email protected]om and [email protected]