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German officials latest to challenge Facebook

Facebook has undue access to the names and e-mail addresses of people who aren't even members, one of the country's data protection officials argues in a complaint.

Data protection officials in Germany announced Wednesday the launch of a formal investigation into Facebook, saying they believe some of its much-maligned privacy policies are illegal. It's given Facebook until August 11 to respond formally.

The news was originally reported by the Associated Press; Facebook public policy spokesman Andrew Noyes confirmed the investigation on Wednesday. "Facebook has received a letter from the Hamburg Data Protection Officer," a statement read. "We are currently reviewing it and will readily respond to it within the given timeframe. Millions of Germans come to Facebook each day to find their friends, share information with them and connect to the world around them."

Like a high-profile investigation last year on behalf of Canadian privacy authorities, the German probe into Facebook focuses on the amount of member data that is stored and for how long. But the angle that the German investigation takes is slightly different. The officials' primary concern here is that Facebook is also collecting data on nonmembers who aren't registered for the site and consequently haven't granted Facebook any kind of explicit permissions when they navigate to the site's growing amount of public content. (Facebook used to be housed entirely behind a log-in wall.)

"We consider the saving of data from third parties, in this context, to be against data privacy laws," a statement from Hamburg-based data protection official Johannes Caspar read. Much of this deals with the names and e-mail addresses of individuals who are accessed by Facebook contact import tools.

Germany's privacy laws are extremely strict by design. This spring, the country's highest court suspended a European law that required telecommunications and e-mail companies to hold customer data for six months in the event that law enforcement authorities wanted access to it. Germany has also recently taken issue with the photographs taken by Google Street View vehicles. It's tussled with Wikipedia, and one data protection commissioner there was prominently opposed to the Google-DoubleClick merger several years ago.

What's also interesting is that Germany has, in the past, been one of Facebook's weakest spots within Europe. A German social network called StudiVZ had been a serious roadblock to Facebook's growth in Germany: Facebook sued it two years ago for allegedly copying its look and feel, and rumors arose shortly thereafter that Facebook had actually tried to acquire StudiVZ. At the time, StudiVZ's German reach was 10 times bigger than Facebook's.

Since then, Facebook has made significant inroads in Germany but its growth still remained slower than in other European countries. Slightly over a year ago, according to numbers from ComScore, Facebook was the fourth biggest social network in Germany--one of only three countries in Europe where it wasn't in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot.