In 2014 Facebook spent a whopping $19bn buying everyone’s favourite chat app, WhatsApp.
The deal came under a huge amount of scrutiny: from the media (“they spent HOW much?”); users (“don’t let Facebook ruin my WhatsApp”); and regulators (“what does this mean for competition?”).
Its deal went through, and all was right in the world… for a while.
This morning the European Commission, which scrutinised the mammoth deal three years ago, levied an historic £94m fine against Facebook over its WhatsApp acquisition.
Why? Because Facebook intentionally ‘misled’ about just how creepy buying WhatsApp would be.
Creepy creepy Facebook
The Commission this morning said that in 2014 Facebook claimed: “it would be unable to establish reliable automated matching between Facebook users’ accounts and WhatsApp users’ accounts.”
Simply put, Facebook couldn’t match what you were doing on WhatsApp with who you are on Facebook to make its advertising more targeted.
So if you’re discussing holidays with friends on WhatsApp, you are not supposed to see creepy holiday ads popping up on Facebook.
But the Commission this morning said it has discovered that not only is that kind of matching and creepy advertising now happening, but “contrary to Facebook’s statements… automatically matching Facebook and WhatsApp users’ identities already existed in 2014”.
Facebook knew it could and would start matching WhatsApp users to their Facebook profiles, and it lied to the Commission to ensure its takeover went smoothly.
“Today’s decision sends a clear signal to companies that they must comply with all aspects of EU merger rules, including the obligation to provide correct information,” said EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who leads on competition policy.
Today’s decision isn’t really about privacy or creepy Facebook ads – indeed the Commission admits that it still would have green-lit Facebook’s WhatsApp takeover even if Facebook had revealed its plans.
Instead, today is about tech giants lying.
Lying to you about how your data will be used.
Lying to the media on the scale of their ambitions.
And lying to politicians and regulators in order to get their own way.
Europe’s £94m warning to Facebook and its peers is simple; we’re on to you.