Authorities in Europe fined Facebook $122 million for misleading officials about its ability to automatically combine data about its users with those of the messaging service WhatsApp.
When the European Commission considered whether to approve Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook allegedly indicated that it wasn't able to automatically link users of both companies.
Last year, however, WhatsApp announced plans to share users' phone numbers and other information with Facebook, which said it would draw on those numbers to make friend suggestions to WhatsApp users, and also send them targeted ads. The company also will use phone numbers for other purposes, including analytics and fighting spam.
WhatsApp promised to let people opt out of receiving targeted ads (and receiving friend suggestions) based on phone numbers. But the company said it wouldn't allow people to opt out of sharing their phone numbers with Facebook.
The authorities today faulted Facebook for its 2014 statements. "The Commission has found that, contrary to Facebook's statements in the 2014 merger review process, the technical possibility of automatically matching Facebook and WhatsApp users' identities already existed in 2014, and that Facebook staff were aware of such a possibility," the EU stated.
EU official Margrethe Vestager added in a statement that the fine "sends a clear signal to companies that they must comply with all aspects of EU merger rules, including the obligation to provide correct information."
Before its merger with Facebook, WhatsApp was famous for its stringent privacy policies, including a promise to never share users' personally identifiable information for ad purposes.
In the U.S., privacy advocates Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy asked the FTC to intervene in Facebook's plan to merge data about users with WhatsApp. The FTC said in September that it was reviewing the advocates' complaint, but the agency didn't publicly taken action.