Face to Face in Subcommittee

For weeks Facebook has been having a row with privacy groups: What information is the social network storing about users as well as non-users? Now Facebook had to justify itself in the Bundestag.

A subcommittee of the Bundestag is not the place one anticipates all too thrilling discussions. And room E 800 in the Paul-Löbe building, with its mundane, functional round meeting table and darkened windows, is not actually suited to big appearances.

This Monday was different. It came to something like a showdown there in the subcommittee for “New Media.” On one side sat two managers of the notorious data octopi, U.S. firms Facebook and Google, Per Meyerdierks and Richard Allan; on the other sat the two most high-profile German data privacy officers, Peter Schaar and Thilo Weichert.

And Schleswig-Holstein’s Data Privacy Officer Thilo Weichert made clear right away that it would not be a soft-line meeting. “In our opinion, the conditions that we have in social communities, particularly those from the U.S., are unlawful and therefore not to be retained,” he said.

A Mini-spy of the Data Octopus

For weeks there has been trouble between Weichert and the Facebook social network. Namely, since Weichert slapped the company on the finger — which is meant literally in this case. The data privacy officer doesn’t like the “like” button at all, a blue logo with a thumbs up, that page hosts can include in their own Internet offerings. With it, Facebook users can, for example, recommend texts in online media to other users.

In the eyes of Data Privacy Officer Weichert, this button is a sort of built-in mini-spy on external Internet sites that makes it possible for the U.S. company to spy on the surfing behavior of millions of people.

Not only data about Facebook members, but also data about non-members could be transmitted to Facebook as soon as they land on a page with the “like” button. And therefore, Weichert demands that all people running Internet pages in Schleswig-Holstein — the state for which he is responsible — remove the button. The consequence would be a Facebook thumb-free zone from Westerland to Lübeck.

Decisive Questions Remain Unanswered

The data privacy officer is gung ho on taking on the Internet giant with 700 million users worldwide. On Monday he announced a “further level of escalation.” He now wants to bring the matter in front of the administrative court.

With a friendly smile, Richard Allan, who directs the European business from Dublin, was visibly taking pains to portray his company as concerned with transparency; however, he gave no answers to the decisive questions: What data does Facebook store, how long and to what purpose? After all, he made clear between his warm words that he is rather irritated by the “at least 50 data privacy agencies” in the EU, of which in his eyes at most only one has anything to say: the one in Ireland where Facebook has its European place of business, as Allan repeatedly emphasized.

Allan could just as easily have said: Fuck you, Peter — fuck you, Thilo. But naturally he didn’t. But, on the other hand, he denied a report according to which his company had agreed to an exception for Schleswig-Holstein with Weichert.

But perhaps it is already a success that the European head of Facebook even has the feeling that he must respond to questions of the Bundestag subcommittee. After the subcommittee hearing, the committee chairperson advised Facebook manager Allan that he look for a second apartment in Germany.

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