Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

San Francisco — Facebook is fighting demands by EU investigators to turn over vast amounts of data the social network says includes highly sensitive personal information that’s not needed for antitrust probes.

The company challenged the European Commission’s requests for internal documents at the EU’s General Court earlier in July, a move that could thwart EU efforts to build cases against the company’s marketplace ads and how it uses data.

Facebook expected to give regulators hundreds of thousands of documents but “the exceptionally broad nature” of the EU’s requests would force it “to turn over predominantly irrelevant documents that have nothing to do with the commission’s investigations”, said Facebook lawyer Tim Lamb.

The EU started examining Facebook’s sales platform and how it uses data from apps last summer, one of several cases scrutinising whether internet firms play fair. It adds to a probe into how Amazon.com collects data from retailers through its platform and investigations into Apple’s app store. Regulators can require companies to give documents mentioning certain keywords under threat of fines.

‘Medical information’

Details sought by the EU in May include “highly sensitive personal information such as employees’ medical information, personal financial documents, and private information about family members of employees”, Lamb said. “We think such requests should be reviewed by the EU courts.”

The EU told Facebook to look for internal e-mails and other documents that mentioned about 2,500 search terms such as “big question”, ”shut down” and “not good for us” that would also have netted personal communications from employees and work and security evaluations outside the scope of any investigation, according to a person familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The commission in Brussels said it “will defend its case in court”, adding that its investigation into Facebook’s “potential anticompetitive conduct is ongoing”.

Interim measures

Facebook is asking the court to grant so-called interim measures that would halt the EU’s demand for data even before the court can tackle the main argument, according to the filings made on July 15.

The filings could slow down the EU cases, which are still at an early stage and are not yet formal investigations. The company may struggle to win after judges turned down earlier company efforts to curb the EU’s information-gathering powers.

Qualcomm lost a court bid in 2019 to overturn an EU request for information and failed to win an interim ruling in 2017 to halt the order to hand over information. That did not help the company stave off more than €1bn in antitrust fines. Cement companies also lost a 2014 bid to halt data demands they said were a “fishing expedition”.

Bloomberg

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