German official calls for government bodies to close Facebook pages

Germany’s data protection commissioner has called for all government bodies to remove their Facebook pages by the end of the year, arguing that the social media giant failed to comply with German and European privacy laws.

Commissioner Ulrich Kelber told German authorities in a recent letter that nearly two years of negotiations with Facebook have failed to make any progress, and that organisations’ pages on the platform therefore did not meet European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The move comes as pressure from European regulators on Big Tech intensifies. Last week, Germany’s antitrust watchdog launched an investigation into Apple, after similar probes into Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Earlier this month, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that privacy watchdogs in any EU country can, under certain circumstances, enforce the GDPR against a company on their own.

Kelber said he would also begin auditing social media apps such as Instagram, owned by Facebook, as well as the video app TikTok, and audio platform Clubhouse. He advised authorities to remove accounts from these sites as well, due to similar data privacy concerns.

EU law stipulates that personal data can only leave for jurisdictions with equally stringent data privacy legislation, and the US is not considered to meet those standards. It is currently not possible to prevent Facebook page followers’ personal data from being transmitted to the US, Kelber said.

In October 2019 Facebook provided a supplement that addressed data transparency and processing, but Kelber said it did not meet German federal and state data protection guidelines. The US company has not provided any further guarantees.

“In my view, this shows that Facebook is not prepared to make any changes to its data processing,” he said. “As of January 2022, I intend — in the interest of the citizens concerned — to gradually make use of the remedial measures available to me under Article 58 of the GDPR.”

Government offices have argued that such pages are critical to outreach in a time when fewer people rely on formal media outlets for information and increasingly turn to social media. Kelber said he had initially refrained from demanding page removals owing to these concerns, but said that had been dependent on negotiations continuing. He no longer believed such talks had “discernible prospects of success”.

Facebook said: “At the end of 2019, we updated the Page Insights supplement to clarify the accountability of Facebook and page operators . . . It’s important to us that government agencies can also use Facebook Pages to communicate with people on our platform in a privacy-compliant way.”

Steffen Seibert, spokesperson for Angela Merkel’s government, said in a press briefing on Wednesday that the commissioner’s evaluation was being studied, but declined to offer further comment.

Government agencies had a “role model” function regarding data privacy, Seibert added. “I therefore consider you to have a special obligation to behave in a manner that complies with data protection law.”

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