Despite not being explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has firmly held that a right to privacy for all Americans is found in several amendments to the Constitution, with almost 100 years of case law providing precedent for many personal privacy rights that have become a cornerstone of American culture. However, in this new digital age of rapid technology change, with real-time access to information and the global exchange of information at the push of a button, new privacy protection questions arise almost daily. The extent to which an individual’s private information shared online is subject to privacy protection varies depending on which side of the pond you stand.
European nations generally take a more restrictive approach than the U.S. as to how companies can use personal data. EU nations often go head-to-head with U.S. digital companies over differing interpretations of privacy rights. Both Google and Microsoft have faced multiple investigations outside the United States.
Facebook seems to be a particularly popular target. As the world’s largest social network with 1.6 billion monthly users, Facebook earns its revenues from advertising aimed at users, after gathering information from the users’ social connections and activities in their posts. Late last month, a German court fined Facebook 100,000 Euros for failing to follow an order issued by a German court four years ago that required the social media site to revise a clause in its terms regarding any intellectual property content posted by users on or in connection with Facebook. The German court had found that the clause in the terms violated consumer rights. While Facebook modified the wording slightly for German users, the German court found that the revised wording still maintains the same underlying message as the original wording. Europe’s highest court also recently successfully challenged Facebook as to the way that data was transferred between the European Union and the United States. And just yesterday, a German court ruled that domestic websites could not transfer user data to Facebook via its “like” button without the specific consent of the user.
In a novel link between privacy protection and antitrust, the German competition authority known as the Federal Cartel Office (BKA) opened an investigation on March 2 into whether Facebook abused its dominant position in social networking in order to collect its users’ digital information, including placing unfair constraints on the users, who were forced to sign complicated terms and conditions in order to use the network. The investigation seeks to discover whether Facebook users were properly informed about how their personal data would be obtained through the site, including the type of data collected, as well as the extent of the data collected.
One might ask why the BKA would get involved with this novel approach to linking privacy protection to antitrust law. First, under antitrust law, the maximum fines are much greater than those under privacy law. For a company tech giant like Facebook, the fines imposed by data protection authorities can seem negligible, even for the most egregious cases, while antitrust fines pose a much more significant deterrent. Second, Facebook has claimed that it falls only within the jurisdiction of the data protection authority in Ireland, where its international headquarters are situated. By bringing the investigation under the auspice of the antitrust authority, this argument is avoided. The President of the BKA, Andreas Mundt, remarked that, “[d]ominant companies are subject to special obligations,” and he went on to say that such obligations include adequate terms of service, as far as they are relevant to the market. He also noted the importance of user data where Internet services are financed by advertising. The BKA noted, “. . . if there is a connection between infringement and market dominance, it could constitute an abusive practice under competition law.”
While some question the BKA’s position as ambitious and vague, others fear that this case could open the door to other investigations and cases using data protection violations to claim antitrust violations. Whether the BKA is successful or not, this should be a forewarning to other big U.S. technology companies: it is probably not enough to rely on U.S. privacy rules when playing in a global arena.