Nine months after a whistleblower revealed that Facebook had allowed outsiders to improperly access personal information about millions of its users, the social media giant faced its first major rebuke from regulators in the United States – a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit from Karl Racine on Wednesday targeted Facebook mainly for its entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that harvested names, “likes” and other data from the social site without users’ permission. The incident, which affected more than 87 million users, beginning in 2014, came to light this March, sparking investigations around the world.
The opening salvo from the D.C. attorney general ended a protracted silence on the part of many U.S. regulators, who have faced immense pressure – from members of Congress and average web users – to discipline Facebook for what many see as a reckless disregard for online privacy. Some of Silicon Valley’s toughest critics have urged the government to slap Facebook with severe fines and other penalties that might force it to rethink a business model that monetizes the most intimate details of consumers’ lives.
“It’s about time,” said Christopher Wylie, who exposed the Cambridge Analytica controversy through reports in several news organizations.
But the fact that the first legal action came from local D.C. officials – not their federal counterparts located a 10-minutes walk away – left some privacy advocates fearful that the U.S. government’s primary consumer-protection cop increasingly is outmatched by Silicon Valley. That agency, the Federal Trade Commission, started investigating the Cambridge Analytica controversy weeks after it became public, out of concern that Facebook violated a pledge it made to regulators to honor its users’ privacy settings. On Wednesday, representatives of the FTC again declined to comment on its progress.
“The agency needs to show us that it can stand up to Big Tech,” said Hal Singer, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy.
Facebook said in a statement Wednesday it is “reviewing the complaint and (looks) forward to continuing our discussions with attorneys general in D.C. and elsewhere.” Facebook’s stock price closed down more than 7 percent Wednesday.