A record fine for Facebook

I've covered this a few times here, so we'll be brief this time around: the FCC's $5 billion settlement with Facebook was officially announced yesterday, and it's about as weak as we expected.

The high level things to know: 

  • The $5 billion fine is a settlement—and it could have been much higher if it went to trial, but by striking a deal, Facebook simply got a speeding ticket.
  • Facebook actually won out of this settlement: the agreement gives the company blanket immunity between 2012 and 2018, for things we know it did, and anything that happened in secret as well, which might be revealed later. 
  • There are new privacy rules attached, which requires the company to document any potential risks to user privacy alongside a new 'privacy committee' made up of company employees. Facebook must create paperwork to document any risks in new products, but the FTC doesn't say what a risk is, nor what the minimum notification requirement is.
  • There are a few small wins for users, in that Facebook can't use mobile numbers collected for one purpose, like 2FA, for another purpose. And, it has to throw away any machine learning models it created of people's faces without consent (as well as obtaining that consent going forward).

There is much more to this, but we can detect that Facebook is pleased about the settlement in how it spun the ruling as a positive for the company. It said that "will require a fundamental shift in the way we approach our work" and will "mark a sharper turn toward privacy, on a different scale than anything we’ve done in the past."

What would be more fundamental turn toward privacy would be if the U.S. implemented a national privacy law as an outcome of this... but it failed to do so, which again, was a win for Facebook.

How are lawmakers seeing it? Well, Sen. Edward Markey said that "this outcome is an insult to consumers" and continued that "Facebook is getting away with some of the most egregious corporate bad behavior in the age of the Internet." 

Ashkan Soltani, the FTC's chief technologist during the Obama administration said on Twitter that "If this were a game of chess, Facebook just checkmated FTC, flipped the board so it couldn't be played again, and covered the whole thing up with a blanket."

It's good that something happened, and it's true that the FTC's settlement is the largest fine the company has received to date—including those that were dished out in Europe. But, it's a hilarious parody of what should have happened, given the company's scale, and it's essentially gotten permission to do it again with the knowledge of the cost.

One piece of news that was buried in all of this? Facebook is facing another probe from the Department of Justice, specifically investigating whether it has a monopoly over social media. Perhaps that investigation will actually have teeth.

Further reading: 9 reasons Facebook's FTC settlement is a joke

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