Europe’s love affair with Facebook may be coming to an end.
On Thursday, the European Union’s powerful antitrust chief fined the social network 110 million euros, or about $122 million, for giving misleading statements during the company’s $19 billion acquisition of the internet messaging service WhatsApp in 2014.
The fine — one of the largest regulatory penalties against Facebook — comes days after Dutch and French privacy watchdogs ruled that the company had broken strict data protection rules. Other European countries, notably Germany, are clamping down on social media companies, including issuing potentially hefty penalties for failing to sufficiently police hate speech and misinformation.
The European Union’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, said that Facebook had told the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, that the social network would not combine the company’s data with that of WhatsApp, which has more than one billion users.
Yet last August, Facebook announced that it would begin sharing WhatsApp data with the rest of the company. That could allow it to gain an unfair advantage over rivals, by giving it access to greater amounts of data to help support its online advertising business.
“Today’s decision sends a clear signal to companies that they must comply with all aspects of E.U. merger rules,” Ms. Vestager said in a statement. “And it imposes a proportionate and deterrent fine on Facebook. The commission must be able to take decisions about mergers’ effects on competition in full knowledge of accurate facts.”
In response, Facebook said that it had acted in good faith in its deliberations with Europe’s antitrust officials, and that it would not appeal the financial penalty.
“The errors we made in our 2014 filings were not intentional,” Facebook said in a statement. “The commission has confirmed that they did not impact the outcome of the merger review.”
The overall penalty amounted to a slap on the wrist — it pales in comparison with the tens of billions of dollars the company earns in online advertising every year, and Europe’s antitrust officials stopped short of voiding the deal completely.
But the fine signals that European officials are increasing their scrutiny of Facebook just as it becomes one of the largest technology companies on the planet.
Increased oversight has become something of a rite of passage for American technology companies operating in Europe.
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