The Federal Trade Commission confirmed today that it has opened an investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices. But it’s not clear, according to experts, whether regulators have the power or political will to force the social giant to respect user privacy.
When the FTC settled with Facebook in 2011, it required that the company agree to regular audits and to give users better control over their privacy, but levied no fines. This time, the FTC could potentially fine Facebook millions of dollars — but for a corporation valued at around $100 billion, that amounts to a slap on the wrist.
In a Guardian op-ed, thinkers at the Open Markets Institute suggested that the FTC break Facebook up into a number of small companies. Another forceful measure, according to academic and technology critic David Carroll, could be stronger European privacy laws, scheduled to come into effect this spring, that could impose punishing fines proportional to the companies’ business — maybe as high as billions of dollars — that could force tech giants to take user privacy more seriously.
Facebook has been on the defensive since it emerged that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign, obtained data about more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge. Bloombergreported last week that the FTC and six congressional committees were investigating Facebook’s handling of user data; today, the Senate Judiciary Committee reportedly invited founder Mark Zuckerberg to a hearing about data privacy.
After staying quiet for several days after the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Zuckerberg struck a conciliatory tone in interviews with The New York Times, Wired and Recode. Over the weekend, Facebook took out full-page ads in newspapers including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to apologize for what it called a “breach of trust.”