Facebook Antitrust Data-Hunt Gets Ground Rules From EU Court

Facebook Inc. may be able to slow down -- but not derail -- European Union antitrust investigators’ demands to turn over vast amounts of data following an EU court order that sets ground rules for efforts to build a case against the U.S. tech giant.

In a decision that isn’t a decisive victory for either side, the president of the EU’s second-highest court said on Thursday that the European Commission can’t force the social network giant to hand over potentially sensitive records without a detailed review.

Instead, the EU must work with Facebook in identifying such information and store it in a “virtual data room.” The ruling follows a dispute over arrangements on how to view the data.

“The members of the team responsible for the investigation shall examine and select the documents in question,” while giving Facebook lawyers “the opportunity to comment on them before the documents considered relevant are placed on the file,” Marc van der Woude said in Thursday’s court order.

The EU last year started examining Facebook’s sales platform and how it uses data from apps, as part of a broader crackdown on Silicon Valley. The EU is also looking at how Amazon.com Inc. collects data from retailers through its platform and investigations into Apple Inc.’s app store. Regulators can require companies to give documents mentioning certain keywords under threat of fines.

Facebook sued the commission in July, citing “the exceptionally broad nature” of the EU’s orders. It also filed two challenges seeking a court suspension of the EU data demands.

Facebook said in a statement that it particularly welcomed the court’s assessment “that highly personal and irrelevant information enjoy strong legal protections which need to be respected in the commission’s ongoing investigation.”

“In the meantime, we continue to cooperate with the commission and have already provided it with over a million documents,” the company said.

The Brussels-based commission said it “will duly implement” the court’s order and “continue to defend its case in court,” according to an emailed statement. “The commission’s investigation into Facebook’s potential anticompetitive conduct is ongoing.”

The EU’s demands impose on Facebook “a positive obligation to search for all of its electronic files on the basis of broad search terms and to communicate to the commission the documents responding to those search terms, even if those documents contain sensitive personal data,” the court decided. Facebook “correctly claims that that obligation requires it to process sensitive personal data.”

The decision on so-called interim measures can be appealed. Facebook’s main appeals over the legality of the EU’s demands remain pending.

The cases are T-451/20 and T-452/20 Facebook Ireland v Commission.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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