UK’s DCMS calls in Facebook again over user data access, asks competition authorities to investigate

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The latest revelations about Facebook’s handling of user data — an investigation by the New York Timesfound that Facebook had been providing special data access to large companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Spotify and others — has landed the social network once more in hot water in Europe, and specifically the United Kingdom.

Today, Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, issued a statement in which he called on competition authorities to open an investigation into abusive market dominance, and also for Facebook to once again appear before his committee to “explain how their policies work on access to user data, and whether policies are a breach of data privacy law, as it would appear that user data was made available to firms without the informed consent of the user having been given.”

Specifically, Collins is focusing on the fact that the report published early today appears to contradict Facebook’s previous testimony.

“I feel that we have been given misleading responses by the company when we have asked these questions during previous evidence sessions,” Collins said in the statement. The full statement is below.

The DCMS has hauled Facebook in for questioning multiple times now over to its ongoing investigation into how Facebook provides access to and safeguards (or doesn’t as the case may be) user data. Previous requests (hereand here) have also specifically asked for Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook, to appear, although he has yet to do so.

While the statement from Collins doesn’t make mention of it, there are other angles to be explored as well. Earlier this month, LinkedIn was singled out for how it leveraged Facebook’s ad platform to gather information about users’ friends for LinkedIn marketing and networking purposes, and a report in Gizmodoalso published yesterday highlights how that this kind of cross-pollination is/was rife among several other players too. This is likely also to come up in subsequent investigations.

The bottom line is that while these may not be API loopholes along the lines of those exploited by Cambridge Analytica, they all point to just how tangled and intentionally confusing a lot of these relationships are, obscuring just how much information about us is known and used.

The competition authority reference, meanwhile, is linked with the fact that Facebook appeared to give preferential access to user data to larger companies over smaller ones — in fact, cutting smaller companies out of the equation altogether.

Irrespective of whether it was appropriate data access or not (Facebook, of course, argues that each specific dealhad a purpose that did not violate user privacy), there are questions here about whether Facebook abused its market-dominating position in social media by favoring large companies over smaller ones in forging partnerships or providing access to services.

To be clear, Facebook has not been deemed a monopoly by any authorities — although there are investigations underway both in Washingtonand Germanythat are considering whether Facebook could and should be investigated as such. In that context, Collins appeal to competition authorities appears to be a step in the long process of determining whether there are grounds for investigating on that front, and my suspicion is that this is not the last you will year of this.

“The Competition authorities should also investigate how Facebook decides which companies have access to user data and which don’t,” Collins said. “Given the dominant market position they enjoy in social media, this gives real concerns about whether they are behaving as a monopoly, exercising their considerable power to further dominate the commercial environment in which they trade; making some businesses, and breaking others in the process.”

All in all, this is a damning development for the social network — which has over 2 billion users and is fighting fires on other fronts— in its relations with authorities and regulators, one that will continue to erode the company’s reputation with them and users alike.

The full text of Collins’ statement is below:

“This latest investigation adds to the evidence published earlier this month by the DCMS select Committee, from documents we received from the American app developer, Six4Three.

“The investigation shows that Facebook offers preferential access to user data to some of its major corporate partners. The scale of the business these companies do with Facebook underpins the value their relationship. Facebook rewards these firms with data privileges that other organisations to not enjoy.

“We have to seriously challenge the claim by Facebook that they are not selling user data. They may not be letting people take it away by the bucket load, but they do reward companies with access to data that others are denied, if they place a high value on the business they do together. This is just another form of selling. We remain concerned as well about Facebook’s ability to police what happens to user data when it is shared with developers, as was highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica data breach.

“Facebook should come back in front of the Committee to explain how their policies work on access to user data, and whether policies are a breach of data privacy law, as it would appear that user data was made available to firms without the informed consent of the user having been given. I feel that we have been given misleading responses by the company when we have asked these questions during previous evidence sessions.

“The Competition authorities should also investigate how Facebook decides which companies have access to user data and which don’t. Given the dominant market position they enjoy in social media, this gives real concerns about whether they are behaving as a monopoly, exercising their considerable power to further dominate the commercial environment in which they trade; making some businesses, and breaking others in the process.”

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