Well, it’s finally over. According to a post penned late Thursday by Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer on the company’s official blog, the social media giant got a federal court’s sign-off on its settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, marking the end of a historic case that involved roughly a full year of back and forth with the agency and a $5 billion dollar civil penalty, and more than a few photo ops of Mark Zuckerberg in an array of suits. But just because the case is historic doesn’t mean it’s anything short of lackluster.
To recap, this is the court mandate sealing the end of the FTC’s 2018 probe into Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytic scandal. When the initial settlement was being laid out last year, a number of publications—including ours—pointed out that the price Facebook was set to pay for violating consumer privacy on a mass scale and irrevocably twisting the political landscape was only $5 billion dollars, a number that definitely surpassed any fines decreed by the Commission previously, but one that still roughly totaled a month’s worth of earnings for the company at the time, and even less than that now.
Granted, a superficial penalty wasn’t the only thing that Facebook was hit with at the time. The agreement also mandated that the company have someone watching over its shoulders for the next 20 years, adding an FTC-mandated independent privacy committee to its board of directors as a way to tone down any “unfettered control by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg over decisions affecting user privacy,” as they said at the time. As of this writing—nearly a full year after news of the settlement first hit—those committee roles still remain unfilled, even as the company fills up seats on its oversight board for content moderation.
It’s not hard to see why the moderation roles would be snapped up first: The sticky issues surrounding hate speech and extremism are, well, sticky, but they can ultimately be dealt with in a way that doesn’t cut too severely into Facebook’s bottom line. Privacy issues, not so much. While some advertisers have tried to turn up their noses at the platform in the past over the company’s laissez-faire relationship with its consumer’s personal information, the truth is the majority just can’t quit, particularly if they’re one of the tens of millions of smaller businesses living and dying by Facebook’s ad platform.
Even when that privacy-overseer role on the Facebook board does get filled, it’s unclear what, if anything, in the company they’ll be able to influence. As pointed out by federal officials and business rags alike, the settlement itself doesn’t actually change Facebook’s core business model, which has been—and likely always will be—collecting the right data to show the right consumer the right ad at the right time.
While an overseer might be able to see the end result of that sausage-making process, anyone who works in advertising will tell you that there are many, many more actors working behind the scenes to get those ads in front of a user’s eyeballs than just Facebook alone, and none of those actors are addressed as part of the initial settlement. What the FTC did with its multibillion-dollar fine wasn’t shine a light on the advertising process, but encourage the company to push its most invasive advertising tools further down the black boxes of the ad-tech ecosystem and further out of the FTC’s line of sight. And as today’s settlement news proves, the commission will clearly be none the wiser until it’s too late.