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EU antitrust watchdog probes big tech data practices

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The European Commission’s competition regulator is opening an investigation into Facebook and Google’s collection and monetisation of user data.

A preliminary investigation has begun by sending out questionnaires about Google and Facebook’s data handling.

“These investigations concern the way data is gathered, processed, used and monetised, including for advertising purposes,” the regulator said in a statement.

According to Reuters, the investigation will scrutinise Facebook’s API (application program interface) for allowing third-party app developers to access data and functionalities on its main platform, as well as on its Instagram subsidiary. It will also consider data for marketing and advertising services.

Third-party access to data has become a controversial issue for Facebook, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal bringing to light the scale and implications of politically motivated third parties harvesting user data for ad targeting. Since the scandal, reports have also emerged that Facebook executives used access to user data as leverage, giving and restricting access depending on factors such as how much other companies spent on Facebook advertising or were perceived to be a threat to Facebook.

Reuters reports that EU regulators will look into the details of the contracts allowing third-party access to Facebook’s APIs and the impact on companies which have their data access restricted. The questionnaire distributed by regulators will ask if there were restrictions or conditions associated with Facebook’s use of the data provided by the companies in return for access to its APIs and will also ask whether and why Facebook might curb API access.

According to the Financial Times (FT), the regulator has also sent questionnaires to Google rivals about how the search giant collects and monetises data and whether Google may have used its dominant position in the search market to stifle competition, such as by restricting rivals’ data access.

Richard Stables, CEO of price comparison website Kelkoo, told the FT: “The amount of data Google has is frightening. I don’t think the commission has a real knowledge of how extensive its data collection across the internet is. They will be shocked.”

The European Commission – and particularly European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager – has taken a strong stance against the misbehaviour of American tech giants, fining Google billions of euros for multiple antitrust infringements; demanding that Facebook gets user consent for tracking online activity via embedded ‘Like’ buttons, and forbidding Facebook from merging data from multiple platforms. European antitrust regulators are also probing Facebook’s plans to establish a digital currency, Libra, having submitted questions to the social media giant about the scheme.

Facebook is also facing a series of imposing investigations in the US, where it is under investigation for various alleged misbehaviours by the Federal Trade Commission, a coalition comprising almost every state attorney-general, the US Justice Department and the House of Representatives.

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