Facebook Under Attack in Germany Over Privacy

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Michael Gottschalk /AFP / Getty Images

German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner

Facebook is in the business of connecting people all over the world, but the social-networking giant is on the verge of losing one of its most influential friends in Germany — the Minister of Consumer Protection — because of a disagreement over the site's privacy regulations. Ilse Aigner effectively declared war on Facebook on April 5 when she wrote a provocative, open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the website's 25-year-old founder. "I was astonished to discover that, despite the concerns of users and severe criticism from consumer activists, Facebook would like to relax data protection regulations on the network even further," the minister wrote. "Private information must remain private. Unfortunately, Facebook does not respect this wish." She then threatened to take down her own profile in protest.

What could turn a self-confessed social-networking addict so virulently against Facebook? Last month, the website announced a planned test to start sharing users' personal details with handpicked third-party websites to help those sites better personalize their services to people. Aigner complains that Facebook users won't necessarily be notified when this happens and the onus will be on them to use the opt-out function to stop their personal details from being passed on. And that, she says, leaves many people, especially youngsters, in a vulnerable position, since they may not be aware that their personal data could be used for commercial purposes.

The minister's outburst struck a chord among Germans, who take their privacy seriously. "Data Protection War — Consumer Groups Call for Facebook Boycott," screamed the headline in the mass-market daily Bild. The Federation of German Consumer Organisations, which represents 42 consumer groups, accused Facebook of repeatedly flouting privacy regulations and advised users to switch to another social-networking site.

Germany has tough privacy laws, a response to the state surveillance systems that were put in place first by the Nazis and then by the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. Under the German constitution, the state now has a special responsibility to protect the privacy of its citizens. Germans' privacy rights have been strengthened even further by some recent high-profile court rulings. In March, for example, the constitutional court overturned a law that allowed authorities to keep data on phone calls and e-mails for six months to help fight terrorism and crime. The court said the storage of data could create a "threatening feeling of being under observation."

Germany's privacy laws also cover social-networking sites. Under the Telemedia Act, a website must get a user's permission before passing personal data to a third party for other purposes. The consumer protection ministry says this applies to foreign Internet companies operating in Germany as well. "Facebook may have its headquarters in the U.S., but it has to respect German privacy laws because it is doing business in Germany," says Holger Eichele, a ministry spokesman. "Facebook has up to 7 million users in Germany, it publishes its guidelines in German, and it's clearly operating in the German market."

Germany's data-protection officials have already taken their concerns over Facebook's compliance with privacy laws to the European Union. The authorities insist that Facebook is violating German laws by setting "cookies" on German computers to capture users' data. "Facebook is taking the e-mail addresses of non-users via the contact lists of members without asking the non-users' permission, and they're storing this data in the U.S.," says Johannes Caspar, a data-protection officer in Hamburg, home to the German office of Facebook. "Facebook is able to create profiles of non-users — that's in breach of German privacy law and doesn't meet international privacy standards," he says. Moreover, Caspar claims that Facebook's privacy guidelines are so complicated that many users don't understand them and aren't aware of the consequences when they enter their personal data into the platform.

But Facebook, the world's biggest social-networking site with more than 400 million users, defends its privacy controls. "The proposed new language in the Privacy Policy does not relate to the wholesale sharing of user data for commercial purposes as the minister fears," the company said in a statement, "but to a very limited proposal to work with some pre-approved partner websites." Facebook's European policy director, Richard Allan, has offered to meet Aigner to discuss the matter, but her spokesman says she still has "serious concerns."

Facebook's tussle with the German government is music to the ears of its rivals in Germany. The country's biggest social-networking company, VZ-Networks, says it welcomes Aigner's initiative against Facebook. "It's remarkable she chose to voice her complaints by writing a public letter and by threatening to cancel her Facebook account," Clemens Riedl, chief executive of VZ-Networks, tells TIME. "By doing this, she demonstrates that the German government has no legal means to control U.S. Internet companies operating in Germany." As if acknowledging this itself, the ministry pointed out last week that rival German Internet companies could sue Facebook for unfair competition but didn't elaborate on what measures the German government would take.

For now, there's an uneasy truce between the two sides. Aigner has set up a group on Facebook to discuss the data-protection issue — and 5,000 members have signed up to date. She has also doubled the number of friends on her personal profile, according to her spokesman. It seems the minister can't kick the Facebook habit just yet.