The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Political pressure builds for FTC to punish Facebook with more than a ‘bargain’ fine

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Two top Senate lawmakers on Monday expressed frustration with a federal probe into Facebook’s privacy practices, urging the government to move more swiftly and consider imposing tough punishments that target the company’s top executives.

The message — delivered by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) — reflects the mounting political pressure on the Federal Trade Commission to deliver a strong rebuke of the tech giant while sending a message to the rest of Silicon Valley that Washington has started taking privacy violations more seriously.

“This investigation has been long delayed in conclusion — raising the specter of a remedy that is too little too late,” the lawmakers wrote. “The public is rightly asking whether Facebook is too big to be held accountable. The FTC must set a resounding precedent that is heard by Facebook and any other tech company that disregards the law in a rapacious quest for growth.”

Facebook and the FTC each declined comment for this story.

Facebook has told federal investigators it’s open to heightened oversight of its privacy practices

Specifically, Blumenthal and Hawley contend that a fine ranging into billions of dollars would be a “bargain” for a company as large as Facebook, which recorded $15 billion in revenue last quarter. The tech giant last month said it expects a fine as high as $5 billion, confirming earlier reports from the Post that the FTC could require Facebook to pay a record-breaking financial penalty to settle the probe.

"Even a fine in the billions is simply a write-down for the company, and large penalties have done little to deter large tech firms," the lawmakers said.

Blumenthal and Hawley instead urged the commission to limit Facebook’s data collection, including requirements that restrict the kind of information it collects for advertising. They further called for accountability targeting individual executives if the commission determines “any Facebook executive knowingly broke the law” or its pledge to improve its privacy practices, a commitment it made to end another FTC probe in 2011.

The lawmakers cited reporting from the Post last month that found the agency almost held Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally accountable as part of that investigation eight years ago, but ultimately opted against putting him under order. If the FTC had done so, Zuckerberg could have faced fines and other punishments as a result of the agency’s current inquiry.

Lawmakers including Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) similarly have urged the FTC to target Zuckerberg specifically as a result of its ongoing investigation. But the FTC is unlikely to put Zuckerberg under order, a move that could undermine settlement talks and force the two sides to court, according to two people familiar with the probe who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are supposed to be confidential.

For now, Facebook has told the U.S. government it is willing to submit to greater oversight of its data-protection practices to end the current FTC inquiry, which began in March 2018. The probe initially focused on the social-networking giant’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that improperly accessed data on 87 million Facebook users.

The resulting settlement could grant the FTC unprecedented visibility into Facebook’s decisions to launch new products and services, while empowering the company’s board of directors to take a more aggressive approach to privacy oversight, the Post reported. On Monday, Blumenthal and Hawley signaled support for some of those elements, including more board oversight and heightened privacy audits of Facebook.

“The Facebook investigation will be a defining moment for the Commission,” the bipartisan duo wrote. “It must be seen as a strong protector of consumer privacy and begin to set out a new era of enforcement, or it will not be taken as a credible enforcer.”