Facebook's European public policy director Richard Allan has been on a veritable German tour this week, stopping on Wednesday in Kiel and Thursday in Berlin. The first stop was to face a Schleswig-Holstein state parliamentary committee, where he told lawmakers that state data protection commissioner Thilo Weichert's recent accusations against Facebook were exaggerated.
Last month Weichert's office, which operates independently of the state government, presented a 25-page analysis of the data Facebook potentially collects from its users by planting cookies on their computers. The study explored what the social networking site could potentially do with the cookies and users' IP addresses, ultimately determining that the practice could lead to the creation of user profiles. This would represent a breach of privacy and is therefore illegal under the state's laws, it concluded.
The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein is already known for its cautious approach to data protection, having prevented Google from bringing its Street View service to the region in 2008. Now officials have set their sites on protecting web users, Weichert announced, saying that any site in Schleswig-Holstein using Facebook's "Like" button, which can collect IP data from a computer, or maintaining a fan page on the social networking site would face fines up to €50,000 ($70,000) beginning in October. The move sparked heated criticism from web advocates and bloggers, who accused Weichert of being "data protection hysterical" and an "enemy of business." Meanwhile, Weichert alleged that Facebook refused to respond to his inquiries.
But on Wednesday the two sides met for a showdown at the state parliament in Kiel, where Allan told the committee that Weichert's criticism had gone too far. Facebook's Ireland-based European branch adheres to European Union data protection laws, he said. Weichert had no way of knowing this without access to behind-the-scenes information, but Allan pledged he would soon receive the privileged evidence.
While Allan acknowledged that EU law is not the same as German law, differences could only likely be found in 1 percent of cases, he said. But Weichert, who said many of his Facebook questions remained unanswered, insisted on standing by his threat to fine "Like" button-lovers -- high-traffic websites in particular.
But on Thursday, Allan took the company's interests to the national level, stopping in the German capital of Berlin to meet with Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. The two men agreed on "stronger protection of users," the ministry said in a statement afterwards. This includes participation in Friedrich's plans to create a voluntary privacy "code for social networks." But the voluntary nature would essentially maintain the current status quo, whereby Facebook can continue to cite EU law as its guide without signing on to existing voluntary agreements for multi-media service providers in Germany.
Still, Allan signaled a willingness to cooperate. "We support the initiative towards self-regulation," he said, adding that Facebook already offers its users the option to control how their personal data is used.
'More Lip Service?'
Friedrich praised the company's "fundamental readiness" to work towards self-regulation, a process that would enhance the debate over how German data protection and tele-media laws apply to the company, even as EU laws are still being drawn up.
Rather than making Facebook the standard of definition in such matters, the privacy code should exceed EU law to create even stronger data protection for Germany, the ministry said. But Schleswig-Holstein data commissioner Weichert said he was "irritated" by Friedrich's comments, alleging the minister was outside his realm of jurisdiction.
"Friedrich should do his homework and finally present a valid proposal for an online data protection law, instead of mixing himself up in things he's not responsible for," Weichert said in a statement, adding that duty lies squarely with state authorities.
Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, who has often unloaded hefty criticism onto Facebook, was also skeptical. "It remains to be seen if this is just more lip service or if Facebook will actually improve its data protection settings," Aigner's spokesperson said on her behalf, alleging that the company generally reacts only to massive pressure from users, competitors or data protection officials.