On Friday last week, Thilo Weichert, Data Protection Commissioner of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, ordered that all Website owners within the state immediately stop using Facebook's Like button and other Facebook analytics. Additionally, Weichert ordered that all federal institutions within Schleswig-Holstein remove their Facebook pages and all Facebook plug-ins. Anyone not complying with the order by the end of September could face fines of up to €50,000 (~US$72,000).
Weichert's office claims that Facebook's data tracking, profiling, and disclosure practices violate both German and EU law.
Germany is notoriously sensitive about data privacy. In 2009, a German law that protects private citizens from unwanted publicity made international headlines when two paroled German murderers sued the Wikimedia Foundation to try to get their names removed from Wikipedia articles about their crime.
In 2010, Google immediately faced controversy and opposition when it prepared to launch Google Street View in Germany (Schleswig-Holstein was the first German state to organize protests against the service). The German government bullied Google into allowing people to opt out of Street View, despite no German law specifically requiring Google to do so.
Facebook denies the assertions of non-compliance with the law. Nonetheless, Facebook has never been the cuddliest puppy in the privacy barrel. Therefore, whether or not these allegations are true, the obvious question is: "Why now?"
Weichert's office states that it "has pointed out informally for some time that many Facebook offerings are in conflict with the law." This seems rather strange, given Germany's uncompromising record on privacy. A government hypersensitive about privacy has been long aware (supposedly) of putative privacy violations by a company with a poor reputation for privacy, and just now they're all worked up about it?
One reason for the sudden hullaballoo could be Facebook's recent rollout of facial recognition. Johannes Caspar, Weichert's counterpart in Hamburg, has demanded that, as to German users, Facebook delete all facial recognition data and eliminate or modify the feature.
Caspar's sights were already set on Facebook, however. He opened another inquiry last month regarding Facebook's Friend Finder feature, inducing Facebook to implement data use opt-out features for non-Facebook users receiving invites.
So why does Germany have it out for Facebook?
It might be because of Christian von Boetticher.
Until recently, Boetticher enjoyed great political success, serving as the Christian Democratic Union's party leader in Schleswig-Holstein's state Parliament. He was even being considered as Schleswig-Holstein's next premier.
Then he began dating a 16-year-old he met on Facebook.
To be clear, 16 is well within Germany's age of consent, and sex scandals are generally not career-enders in Germany.
But Germans had long expressed irritation with Boetticher's Facebook use, including posts detailing his posh social life and complaining about his work. CDU members criticized Boetticher for being more focused on Facebook than on his job. Quipped one of Boetticher's colleagues, "I think I need to register with Facebook so I can communicate with him."
The May-September dalliance was the straw that broke the camel's back, leading Boetticher to resign and withdraw his candidacy for premiership. Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the CDU have been recovering from devastating election losses in Hamburg, a major E. coli outbreak, and another scandal involving Merkel's former defense minister.
The moves against Facebook may therefore be politically motivated. As the Boetticher scandal continues to make headlines, and German faith in government remains shaken in difficult times, Germany needs a scapegoat and a distraction.
Tellingly, Weichert's office is advising users "to keep their fingers from clicking" on the Like button -- as if it would require some significant effort to control themselves. By suggesting that Facebook use is compulsive, the language implies that Boetticher's actions were uncontrollable, that Facebook is the real bad guy.
Whether the accusations against Facebook are true or not, German regulators' sudden shift on Facebook policies suggests pretense. As German political tension mounts, so too may antipathy to Facebook.
— Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.