Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have afforded individuals the opportunity to share information at an unprecedented level. With the click of a button you can share information and photographs about your personal life, topical news items, restaurants you have visited, holidays you have been on, the list is endless. Individuals are doing this with the firm belief that they are controlling who they share this information with by adjusting the platforms’ privacy settings. In the case of Facebook there is a plethora of privacy options “friends only” “public” “only me” and “custom.” Facebook really has covered every option to allow you to protect your privacy and control the terms on which your information is accessed. Well not quite.
On a quick glance of Facebook’s data policy it is apparent that the real danger to our privacy is not the aggrieved ex-partner or the snooping potential employer but actually Facebook itself. They openly admit to collecting information about “things you do and information you provide”, “your network and connections” and “information about payments”. They use this information to “show and measure ads and services” and “provide, improve and develop Services.” They share this information with “vendors, service providers and other partners” or “apps, website and third-party integrations on or using our Services”.
For all these free services we pay with personal information which is harvested with the intention of selling to us more tailored products or holidays for example. Market-research conducted by eMarketer estimates that the average Facebook user now generates $12.76 in advertising revenue every year. If you do not accept being pawned in this way you cannot join Facebook. Social media has been dictating privacy. For all too long it has had a carte blanche on our personal privacy. The tide however may be about to turn.
The Germans are at the forefront of protecting individuals’ privacy. On 2 March 2016 the Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s antitrust enforcer, announced that it has initiated a probe of Facebook. It is Facebook’s data harvesting practices which have captured the Bundeskartellamt’s attention. Facebook is under the scrutiny of German competition law owing to their dominant market position in the country. The accusation is that Facebook is using unlawful terms and conditions related to its collection and use of user data. Given that acceptance of these terms and conditions is a prerequisite to access its service, there is concern that it could constitute an abuse of a dominant market position.
One reason advanced for this move is that it seeks to link data-protection related privacy concerns with anti-trust law, which carries potentially higher fines. Similarly, the departments carrying out the investigations are likely to be better resourced than the Data Protection Authorities (DPA).
This latest development in Germany is one of a number of attempts across Europe to control how Facebook is monitoring its users. In early 2016 Facebook received a formal order from the French DPA to stop tracking non-users via cookies and social plug-ins, and a 2015 action in Belgium resulted in Facebook agreeing to change how it operates in that country.
The issue of privacy is increasingly coming to the forefront of social media. Whilst it is encouraging that these authorities across Europe are recognising the impenetrable power social media has over privacy rights and are taking steps to address this, it would seem to be that the war over users’ privacy marches on. Facebook, Google and WhatsApp recently announced plans that they were taking steps to upgrade privacy on their products with the use of encryption technology for user data in a bid to increase privacy following demands from the US Government to access private data. Whilst on this occasion it may be encouraging that these platforms are championing the privacy rights of their users, they remain mute on the real issue of selling user data. The more cynical might think this is another step by these platforms to dictate the terms of our privacy.