Germany lets users decide if Facebook can merge their WhatsApp and Instagram data

The privacy regulator has been tough on the company in recent years.

Germany is known for its no-nonsense approach to digital data gathering -- back in 2016 it took a hard stance against Facebook's use of WhatsApp data, and more recently announced its plans to investigate the Google+ data exposure. Now, its anti-trust watchdog Bundeskartellamt has ordered a crackdown on Facebook's data combination practices in a landmark ruling that could have wide-ranging repercussions for the social network.

As it currently stands, Facebook users are only able to use to platform under the condition that Facebook can also collect their user data outside of the network. This data comes from the company's own services, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, and from third-party websites with embedded Facebook like and share buttons -- and even on pages where there's no obvious sign the company is present.

The Bundeskartellamt claims that this adds up to an abuse of market dominance, and in its ruling stipulates that Facebook may continue to collect this data only if users give their voluntary consent. If consent is not given, the data must remain with the respective Facebook-owned service, or in the case of third-party websites, is not collected in the first instance. Users that don't give their consent must still be allowed to use the platform, and if consent is withheld, Facebook must "substantially restrict its collection and combining of data." So any data gleaned from outside the site cannot be processed in combination with data gathered directly from Facebook.

The watchdog has given Facebook 12 months to develop a proposal for solutions to do this, but predictably, the social network is having none of it. "We disagree with their conclusions and intend to appeal so that people in Germany continue to benefit fully from all our services," Facebook said in a blog post. "The Bundeskartellamt underestimates the fierce competition we face in Germany, misinterprets our compliance with the GDPR, and threatens the mechanism European law provides for ensuring consistent data protection standards across the EU." The decision is not yet legal and Facebook has one month to appeal the decision, which it almost certainly will, because in matters like this, where Germany leads others tend to follow.