Facebook fined €110m over 2014 WhatsApp merger

Facebook supplied misleading information in an investigation into its acquisition of WhatsApp, the European Commission has ruled

Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, described the fine as a "deterrent"

On May 18, the European Commission announced that Facebook has been fined €110m ($122m) by EU antitrust regulators for providing misleading information during a 2014 investigation into its $19bn acquisition of messaging service WhatsApp.

In a statement, the European Commission said Facebook had informed the Commission it would not be able to automatically match user profiles between WhatsApp and Facebook. However, in August 2016, WhatsApp announced updates to its service that entailed doing exactly that.

The Commission found that the technical capacity to match users across platforms had existed in 2014, and highlighted that “Facebook staff were aware of such a possibility” in its statement.

Facebook can add data from WhatsApp conversations to detailed user profiles, enabling it to target very specific groups of users

Access to users’ WhatsApp data potentially gives Facebook an unfair advantage in selling targeted advertising; Facebook can add data from WhatsApp conversations to detailed user profiles, enabling it to target very specific groups of users. Competitors have no access to the vast mine of personal data for WhatsApp’s billion-strong user base.

European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager described the fine as “proportionate and deterrent”. ”The Commission must be able to take decisions about mergers’ effects on competition in full knowledge of accurate facts”, she added.

The Commission ruled that the findings would not impact on its decision to authorise the 2014 merger, stating that “albeit relevant, the incorrect or misleading information provided by Facebook did not have an impact on the outcome of the clearance decision”.

Facebook echoed this statement, adding: “The errors we made in our 2014 filings were not intentional.”

This fine is the latest in a series of penalties issued against Facebook and WhatsApp by EU authorities, suggesting growing concerns over Facebook’s use of EU citizens’ data.

On Tuesday, Facebook received a €150,000 ($166,000) fine from France’s data protection watchdog for privacy violations relating to the inappropriate use of individuals’ data for advertising. It is still under investigation in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain for similar infringements. Last Friday, Italian antitrust authorities issued WhatsApp with a €3m ($3.3m) fine for compelling users to agree to share personal data with Facebook.

Germany is also considering legislation that would give authorities the power to issue social media sites such as Facebook with fines of up to €50m ($56m) for refusing to clamp down on fake news and hate speech.