The Associated Press

Internet powerhouses Facebook and Google are under new legal scrutiny in Europe.

A German data protection official said Wednesday he launched legal proceedings against , which he accused of illegally accessing and saving personal data of people who don’t use the social networking site.

Johannes Caspar said his Hamburg data protection office had initiated legal steps that could result in Facebook being fined tens of thousands of euros for saving private information of individuals who don’t use the site and haven’t granted it access to their details.

"We consider the saving of data from third parties, in this context, to be against data privacy laws," Caspar said in a statement.

Facebook has until Aug. 11 to respond formally to the legal complaint against it. Its response will determine whether the case goes further.

The company, based in Palo Alto, California, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Germans are protected by some of the world’s most strict privacy laws, which lay out in detail how and how much of an individual’s private information may be accessed by whom.

Germany also has launched an investigation into Google Inc. over its Street View mapping program.

In April, Facebook changed its privacy settings to allow users to block access to the contacts listed in their e-mail, but Caspar argues that the previously saved contacts have not been erased and are being used for marketing purposes.

"It is a system that is designed around making it possible for Facebook to expand, for its own benefit," Caspar said in a telephone interview.

He said his office had received complaints from "many" people who had been contacted by Facebook after it obtained their names and e-mail addresses through people listing them as a contact.

Google vs. EU

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Union’s antitrust chief said Wednesday he is looking "very carefully" at allegations that Google Inc. (nasdaq: GOOG) unfairly demotes rivals’ sites in search results.

Joaquin Almunia said in a speech that the EU investigation is still at an early stage but that officials were aware of the "importance of search to a competitive online marketplace."

He appeared to accept Google’s arguments that it is hard to behave as a monopoly on the web, saying the fluid nature of the Internet may make it more difficult for powerful companies to elbow out other companies in new markets.

British price comparison site Foundem and French legal search engine ejustice.fr complained to the EU that they were ranked low in Google searches, claiming that this may be because they offer rival services to Google.

Google says its search results are entirely controlled by algorithms that demote sites with little useful content for users.

Low rankings matter because a higher ranking in a Google search drives higher volumes of traffic to websites.

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