Facebook takes EU antitrust regulators to court

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg visits the European Parliament i 2018. [Shutterstock]

US technology giant Facebook is suing EU regulators after a spat between the two parties erupted over access to company documents as part of an ongoing antitrust probe.

EU competition enforcers have been investigating Facebook for practices related to the use of data in apps since last year, as well as reviewing how the company operates its online marketplace.

As part of the EU’s ongoing investigations it has transpired that Facebook is appealing the Commission’s right to access thousands of “irrelevant” documents that contain “highly personal information”, the company has confirmed.

A source familiar with the matter informed EURACTIV that the Commission had demanded access to Facebook documents with over 2,500 search strings, including very broad keyword criteria.

“With such criteria, this would yield hundreds of thousands of documents,” the source said. “Many of which would highlight personal and completely irrelevant personal information.”

Moreover, since the launch of the investigations last year, Facebook has provided over 300,000 documents to the Commission, but the company says that the thousands more requested by the EU executive could compromise sensitive personal information, which would not be conducive to the ongoing probe.

The source added that many of the documents identified in the Commission’s request include such articles as employee medical records, childcare information and data related to private investments and insurance.

‘Data rooms’

Despite the broad and sensitive nature of the scope, EURACTIV understands that Facebook was willing to disclose the information that EU regulators had requested, but only in the format of a so-called ‘data room’, a secure virtual environment populated with sensitive or confidential information that cannot be copied or stored by the third-party accessing the room.

However, two sources confirmed that the Commission refused the opportunity to access the documents through this format, instead demanding that copies be handed over.

As a result, Facebook challenged the Commission’s requests at the EU’s General Court, filing the complaint on 15 July, claiming that the demands go above and beyond the remit of the antitrust investigation and are in proportionate to what is necessary is the ongoing probes.

“The exceptionally broad nature of the Commission’s requests means we would be required to turn over predominantly irrelevant documents that have nothing to do with the Commission’s investigations,” a statement from Tim Lamb, Director and Associate General Counsel for Competition at Facebook, read on Monday (27 July).

“We think such requests should be reviewed by the EU Courts.”

For its part, a Commission spokesperson said that the executive will “defend its case in court” and that the “investigation into Facebook’s potential anticompetitive conduct is ongoing.”

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