Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of scandal-plagued Facebook, might be held personally liable for damages in a consumer protection lawsuit filed in Washington, DC.
DC Attorney General Karl Racine’s office filed a suit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in December 2018 against Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica data-leak fiasco, alleging that the social media giant had misled consumers about its privacy policies. Racine announced on Tuesday that his investigation had determined Zuckerberg played a much bigger role in the incident than prosecutors were previously aware, according to the New York Times, and will be adding him to the suit. This would be one of the first times a regulator has tried to find Zuckerberg personally liable for the actions of his company.
The suit claims that Facebook made misleading promises to users that their data would be kept private. In reality, its Open Graph API was so loose with protections that it allowed Cambridge Analytica, a shady political firm that worked with right-wing clients like consultants to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, to run off with extensive info on 87 million users. The DC suit states that Facebook not only gave users false reassurances about the security of their data, but failed to monitor third-party apps’ use of it, deliberately made it difficult for users to control privacy settings, and did not disclose how some apps could override their preferences. Facebook also sat on the Cambridge Analytica leak for two years with no public disclosure, according to the suit.
Facebook tried to have the suit thrown out in 2019, as well as to block the DC attorney general’s office from reviewing certain internal documents in discovery, but its efforts failed. As the Times noted, that set off a discovery process involving interviews with numerous current and former Facebook staff and a look at Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress.
Zuckerberg pushed the Open Graph API in 2010 as central to the future of the company, and Racine told the Times that his office had determined his involvement was so pivotal as to warrant adding him to the suit. Racine referred to the API as Zuckerberg’s “brainchild” to the Times.
“Under these circumstances, adding Mr. Zuckerberg to our lawsuit is unquestionably warranted, and should send a message that corporate leaders, including the C.E.O., will be held accountable for their actions,” Racine told the paper.
“These allegations are as meritless today as they were more than three years ago, when the District filed its complaint,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told the Times in response. “We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously and focus on the facts.”
Facebook can and almost certainly will file to dismiss Racine’s effort to add Zuckerberg to the suit, as it has fought every other element of the case. In September 2021, Facebook shareholders went public with a lawsuit that claims Facebook agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission a multi-billion dollar settlement (which itself was chump change for the company) for the express purpose of keeping Zuckerberg uninvolved in the Cambridge Analytica investigation.
The company is facing similar suits by attorneys general across the country. It took another PR blow in recent weeks after a whistleblower, Francis Haugen, leaked numerous internal documents appearing to show Facebook’s duplicity on issues ranging from which users are above the rules to company research showing its subsidiary Instagram’s psychological harm to some young women. Facebook is reportedly planning on changing the name of its parent company in a desperate attempt to escape growing brand toxicity.