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German competition watchdog to rule on Facebook

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Germany's competition watchdog is set to rule on Thursday on whether Facebook abused its dominant position in social media to collect excessive data and could even ban the site's "Like" buttons from other webpages.

[FRANKFURT] Germany's competition watchdog is set to rule on Thursday on whether Facebook abused its dominant position in social media to collect excessive data and could even ban the site's "Like" buttons from other webpages.

Officials have been looking into Facebook since mid-2016, charging that the Silicon Valley giant uses other networks - such as subsidiaries Instagram and Whatsapp, as well as Twitter and other websites - to collect masses of information about users without their knowledge.

That data then provides the foundation for Facebook's advertising profits.

Federal Cartel Office (FCO) chief Andreas Mundt will announce his findings in a press conference at 10am in Bonn.

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There is no danger Facebook will suffer swingeing fines like those imposed by Brussels on rival Google over competition misdeeds.

But the social network could be ordered to update its terms of use in Germany, Europe's largest economy, or even see some of its functions banned.

Media have reported that the "Like" buttons strewn around webpages - used to collect browsing data even when people are not using the Facebook website - could be forbidden.

With almost 30 million users in Germany - 23 million of them logging in daily - Facebook is a dominant player, the cartel authority said in preliminary findings published in December 2017.

The firm "is abusing this dominant position by making the use of its social network conditional on its being allowed to limitlessly amass every kind of data generated by using third-party websites and merge it with the user's Facebook account," it said in a statement.

Such "third-party" sources include Whatsapp and Instagram's chat features, as well as Internet sites and mobile apps that collect data about users' activities.

"This even happens when, for example, a user does not press a 'Like button' but has called up a site into which such a button is embedded," Mr Mundt said.

"Users are unaware of this."

The FCO says users are obliged to accept Facebook's terms of use as a whole, losing control over the use of their personal data.

That constitutes a breach of European data protection rules, the preliminary finding stated.

At the time, Facebook told AFP that the initial report "paints an inaccurate picture" of the firm, stressing that Facebook was not a dominant company and that it complied with European data protection laws.

Since then Facebook has suffered a nightmarish 2018, battered by a torrent of outcries and scandals.

It was accused of offering a platform for manipulating voters and failing to protect user data.

As it celebrated its 15th birthday, the social network had to contend with the global Cambridge Analytica scandal of March 2018.

In that case, data belonging to tens of millions of Facebook users was harvested by the British company through an online personality quiz.

The same consultancy worked on both the Leave campaign in the UK's Brexit referendum of 2016 and on Donald Trump's election campaign in the same year.

The EU introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May last year, intensifying regulators' focus on Facebook.

In January, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg defended his company in the international media, saying its advertising-based business model required collecting personal data.

"We don't sell people's data" to other firms, he insisted in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal.

AFP