The Federal Trade Commission, which has been investigating Facebook in the wake of its massive Cambridge Analytica scandal, has voted to approve levying a massive $5 billion fine against the social media giant, according to reporting in both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. It’s the single largest fine against a tech company by the FTC to date, but its inadequacy to curtail future breaches of this sort already has progressive lawmakers furious.
Facebook was aware of a fine of this magnitude potentially coming down the pike for some time, and braced for a hit between $3 billion and $5 billion. The approval vote—which reportedly split down party lines, with three Republicans voting in favor and two Democrats against—was on the higher end of the expected spectrum.
This is expected to cap the agency’s investigation into the data-mining scandal that compromised up to 87 million Facebook users’ personal data. The data was originally harvested using a seemingly benign quiz app on the platform but was later potentially used by Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, for the unrelated purpose of political ad targeting.
Both the FTC and Facebook declined to comment.
While massive by the standards of tech companies, which too frequently get off with a slap on the wrist of lax data privacy practices which endanger users, the FTC’s fine still represents less than a third of the company’s $15.08 billion earnings from just the first quarter of this year.
Part of the settlement, which still needs approval by the Justice Department, is expected to curtail Facebook’s data policies, though the specific details are not currently known. According to reporting from the New York Times, however, “none of the conditions in the settlement will restrict Facebook’s ability to collect and share data with third parties.” This, allegedly, was the source of Democrats’ decision not to pursue this specific course of action.
“Given Facebook’s repeated privacy violations, it is clear that fundamental structural reforms are required. With the FTC either unable or unwilling to put in place reasonable guardrails to ensure that user privacy and data are protected, it’s time for Congress to act,” Sen. Mark Warner wrote in a statement, seemingly confirming that reporting.
“Despite Republicans’ promises to hold big tech accountable, the FTC appears to have failed miserably at its best opportunity to do so,” Sen. Ron Wyden concurred. “No level of corporate fine can replace the necessity to hold Mark Zuckerberg personally responsible for the flagrant, repeated violations of Americans’ privacy. That said, this reported fine is a mosquito bite to a corporation the size of Facebook. And I fear it will let Facebook off the hook for more recent abuses of Americans’ data that may not have been factored into this inadequate settlement.”
Wyden also alluded to a forthcoming bill which he believes will address the gaps in the FTC’s settlement.
Representative David Cicilline, who chairs the House’s Antitrust Subcommittee, likewise had scathing remarks in regards to the FTC settlement. “The FTC just gave Facebook a Christmas present five months early,” he wrote. “It’s very disappointing that such an enormously powerful company that engaged in such serious misconduct is getting a slap on the wrist. This fine is a fraction of Facebook’s annual revenue. It won’t make them think twice about their responsibility to protect user data.”
Following news of the FTC’s vote, Facebook stocks surged in after-hours trading. If that sounds unfair and utterly backwards, that’s because it is.
Update 5:45pm ET: Added statements from Sens. Warner and Wyden, as well as Rep. Cicilline.