Facebook’s recent revelation that it expects to be fined up to $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for violations of its users’ privacy is the kind of news that might have sunk most companies. But this being Facebook — with a current market value of more than $500 billion — that fine will basically be a sharp slap on the wrist.
What would make Facebook take privacy seriously, if not fining it an almost incomprehensible amount of money? How about installing a federally approved “privacy official” in the highest levels of the company and creating an independent privacy oversight committee?
Politico reports that both those possibilities are on the table, in addition to the fine, in talks between Facebook and the trade commission. Not all privacy advocates are convinced it’s enough to address the issue, but the fine alone definitely isn’t. This proposed agreement, or something like it, should be part of the solution.
Facebook technically isn’t a monopoly — there are other social-media networks. But with more than two-thirds of Americans logging in to its platform, Facebook is in some ways more powerful than, say, Standard Oil or AT&T when those gargantuan monopolies were broken up by the federal government to protect consumers. Unlike those predecessors, Facebook’s power encompasses extensive personal information about almost 2.4 billion users worldwide.
The dangers of leaving so much unfettered power in the hands of one entity became clear when, early last year, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm that had done work for President Donald Trump’s campaign, had mined private data from some 87 million Facebook users obtained through a breach in its data-privacy system.
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Facebook was already under a Federal Trade Commission consent decree when it failed to prevent the Cambridge Analytica debacle. It has also faced criticism for insecure storage of passwords, data-sharing arrangements with other tech firms and other issues.
The proposed trade commission agreement would add privacy-focused changes to Facebook’s management on top of the pending fine, according to Politico. In addition to the appointment of a government-approved, in-house privacy executive and oversight committee, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg would become the “designated compliance officer” — making him personally responsible for privacy issues, which too often have been the subject of buck-passing within the company.
Among the concerns of privacy advocates is that, while the plan puts people in place to focus on privacy protections, it doesn’t mandate what those protections will be. That’s not an unreasonable qualm, and one that should be folded into the negotiations.
With some people — including, last week, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes — suggesting Facebook should get the Standard Oil/”Ma Bell” treatment and be broken up to protect consumers, it’s strongly in the company’s interest to cooperate with regulators and do whatever it can to address these concerns.