In a significant ruling, Europe’s highest court has declared that antitrust authorities, including those overseeing companies like Meta Platforms (owner of Facebook), have the right to investigate privacy breaches. This decision potentially grants them more flexibility in their investigations into major technology companies.
The ruling came as a response to Meta’s challenge following an order from the German cartel office in 2019. The office had directed Meta to cease collecting users’ data without their consent, citing it as an abuse of market power.
The case was brought before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) based in Luxembourg. Its focus was on whether the German antitrust agency had exceeded its jurisdiction by utilizing its antitrust powers to address concerns regarding data protection, which typically fall within the purview of national data protection authorities.
This ruling in the Meta antitrust case expands the scope of authority for antitrust agencies, allowing them to address data protection issues alongside their traditional antitrust responsibilities.
After the German cartel office ordered Meta (the owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) to stop collecting user data without consent, Meta challenged the decision, leading to a German court seeking guidance from the CJEU.
In light of the ruling, a spokesperson from Meta stated that they are currently assessing the Court’s decision and will provide further comments in the future. The judges at the CJEU emphasized that in antitrust investigations, it might be essential for the competition authority of the respective member state to also assess whether the company’s actions comply with regulations beyond those related to competition law.
In addition, the CJEU highlighted that antitrust regulators must consider any decisions or investigations carried out by the relevant supervisory authority regarding data protection regulations.
The ruling was welcomed by the German cartel office, which emphasized the significance of data in determining market power. Andreas Mundt, the head of the German cartel office, stated that the use of personal data by major internet companies could potentially constitute an abuse of market power under antitrust law.
Thomas Graf on Meta Antitrust Case
Thomas Graf, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb law firm, expressed caution regarding the extent to which antitrust authorities would delve into privacy law matters. He highlighted the need to establish the relevance of privacy issues in the context of antitrust law, demonstrating restrictive effects and potential abuse.
Graf also emphasized the importance of coordination between antitrust authorities and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) authorities, as the GDPR plays a key role in regulating privacy and security for organizations operating in the EU.
Graf questioned whether antitrust authorities would effectively assume the role of GDPR regulators, expressing skepticism about such a development. He indicated that the distinct objectives and scopes of antitrust and privacy regulations might limit the extent to which antitrust authorities would become directly involved in GDPR-related matters.