EU competition chief: Facebook probe a ‘grey area’

A German antitrust probe into Facebook’s user terms falls into a “grey zone between competition and privacy”, the EU’s competition chief said yesterday, describing the social network as having “a very dominant position”.

While social networks aren’t a specific concern for EU regulators, they are concerned if they see competition being closed down, Margrethe Vestager told Bloomberg TV yesterday.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office is investigating whether Facebook abused its power as a social network by forcing customers to agree to unfair terms on how their data is used.

Data and how it may be misused by fast-growing technology giants is a focus for Ms Vestager, who is probing Google on several fronts and quizzing Facebook on a U-turn over its use of WhatsApp data, two years after the EU cleared the deal. She will soon have to examine Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn when it files for EU approval.

“Data, as such, is one of the more important things because that’s the new line of business,” said Ms Vestager. “Both knowledge and data are another kind of currency, another asset than just the turnover of the company.”

The EU is weighing possible changes to merger rules to allow more examination of a company’s control of data or intellectual property such as patents, she said. Regulators will seek views on the issue later this year.

“It’s very important for us to be able to secure that there is competition also post-merger in some of the new industries,” she said.

Facebook declined to immediately comment on Ms Vestager’s interview.

Google didn’t need to seek EU approval to buy mapping application Waze or smart-meter developer Nest because revenues fell below existing merger limits.

Facebook voluntarily sought an EU review of WhatsApp to avoid multiple probes across Europe since the deal also fell outside the EU’s thresholds.

EU regulators are also examining allegations that Ikea dodged at least €1bn in taxes over the past six years. Ms Vestager, under fire in some quarters for targeting mainly US firms in a clampdown on corporate tax avoidance, said officials are vetting claims by lawmakers that the world’s biggest furniture retailer uses unfair loopholes to avoid paying taxes.


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