Germany’s antitrust watchdog has imposed what it calls “far-reaching restrictions” on Facebook’s current data-collection practices and has told the social media giant that it must seek voluntary consent from users.

Specifically, the Bundeskartellamt, or Federal Cartel Office (FCO), ruled that Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp and Instagram can continue to collect data, but they cannot combine that data with a user’s main Facebook account unless the user gives permission.

Secondly, the collection of data from third-party websites and assigning them to a Facebook user account will only be possible if users give their voluntary consent.

With its landmark ruling, which gives Facebook one month to appeal, the FCO argued that the company’s market dominance meant it had “special obligations” under competition law.

For example, Facebook’s obligatory “tick on the box” to agree to its terms of use was judged to be an inadequate basis for “such intensive data processing”.

That’s because the only choice the user has is either to accept the comprehensive combination of data or to refrain from using the social network. “In such a difficult situation the user’s choice cannot be referred to as voluntary consent,” the FCO said.

“In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts,” said Andreas Mundt, President of the FCO.

“The combination of data sources substantially contributed to the fact that Facebook was able to build a unique database for each individual user and thus to gain market power,” he added.

“If users do not consent, Facebook may not exclude them from its services and must refrain from collecting and merging data from different sources.”

Facebook responded by confirming it would appeal the ruling and accused the FCO of overlooking its compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force last year.

The company also said the FCO underestimated the fierce competition it faces in Germany from other online services and questioned whether it was the appropriate body to investigate data complaints.

“The Bundeskartellamt underestimates the fierce competition we face in Germany, misinterprets our compliance with GDPR and undermines the mechanisms European law provides for ensuring consistent data protection standards across the EU,” Facebook said in a blog post.

“We support the GDPR and take our obligations seriously. Yet the Bundeskartellamt’s decision misapplies German competition law to set different rules that apply to only one company.”

Sourced from Bundeskartellamt, Facebook; additional content by WARC staff