EU fines Facebook €110 million over WhatsApp deal

France's digital ambassador said the country will favour EU legislation to crack down on terrorists' use of social media platforms. France, the UK and Germany have led Europe's push to force tech giants to remove content promoting terrorism. [Marco Paköeningrat/Flickr]

European Union antitrust regulators fined Facebook €110 million on Thursday (18 May) for giving misleading information during a vetting of its deal to acquire messaging service WhatsApp in 2014.

Calling it a “proportionate and deterrent fine”, the European Commission, which acts as the EU’s competition watchdog, said Facebook had said it could not automatically match user accounts on its namesake platform and WhatsApp but two years later launched a service that did exactly that.

“The Commission has found that, contrary to Facebook’s statements in the 2014 merger review process, the technical possibility of automatically matching Facebook and WhatsApp users’ identities already existed in 2014, and that Facebook staff were aware of such a possibility,” the Commission said.

Facebook said in a statement that the errors made in its 2014 filings were not intentional and that the Commission had confirmed they had not affected the outcome of the merger review.

“Today’s announcement brings this matter to a close,” Facebook said.

The fine would not reverse the Commission’s decision to clear the purchase of WhatsApp and was unrelated to separate investigations into data protection issues, it added.

Facebook gave misleading information during WhatsApp buyout, Commission says

The European Commission could fine Facebook up to €170 million after it accused the social media giant with providing misleading information during its acquisition of WhatsApp.

Reuters reported on Wednesday (17 May) that Facebook was set to be fined.

The Commission could have fined Facebook up to 1% of its turnover – which would have been $276 million based on 2016 results – but said that Facebook had cooperated with the proceedings and acknowledged its infringement.

Consumer groups wanted Vestager to go even further and reverse its original decision to allow the Facebook to acquire WhatsApp in 2014 and said privacy and telecoms regulators should cooperate on investigations of how technology companies use consumer data.

“It is unacceptable that consumers are continuously exposed to the misuse of their data by Facebook. The acquisition of WhatsApp was just one step to strengthen the market power of the social media company,” said Monique Goyens, director of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

“Today’s decision confirms that Facebook provided misleading information to the European Commission to hide its real plans concerning the future of WhatsApp and of its users’ data.”

Others also called for the Commission to overturn its clearance of the WhatsApp acquisition.

“Facebook has deliberately misled the Commission on substantial elements of the merger. If key factors have been deliberately sugar-coated, the validity of the merger clearance must be reconsidered,” German centre-right MEP Markus Ferber, vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee (ECON) said in a statement.

The EU sanction comes after Facebook received a separate €150,000 fine on Tuesday (16 May) by a French data watchdog for failing to prevent its users’ data being accessed by advertisers.

Belgian, Spanish, Dutch and German privacy regulators are also investigating Facebook’s use of consumer data.

Last week the Italian antitrust authorities levied a €3 million fine on WhatsApp for allegedly obliging users to agree to share their personal data with Facebook.

EU seeks new powers to peek into ‘sensitive’ corporate information

The European Commission on Tuesday (2 May) unveiled a proposal that could significantly expand its powers to request access to sensitive corporate data as a way to enforce EU single market rules or to inform new pieces of legislation.

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