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California attorney general asks court to force Facebook to turn over key documents in privacy probe

(Denis Charlet/Afp Via Getty Images)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked a state court on Wednesday to force Facebook to turn over key documents it has withheld in connection with an 18-month investigation into its privacy practices.

Alleging the social-media giant has “refused” to cooperate with officials, the filing in San Francisco County Superior Court outlines for the first time the extent of Becerra’s concerns that Facebook may have violated state law after two years of damaging privacy scandals that sparked international outcry and record-breaking punishments in the United States.

California began its probe in response to Facebook’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that improperly accessed data on tens of millions of Facebook users. The inquiry appears to have expanded to cover other incidents in which software developers and other businesses accessed Facebook data without users’ knowledge or permission, court documents show.

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Appearing at a press conference, Becerra alleged that Facebook had “failed to respond adequately” to dozens of questions and legal demands that the attorney general’s offices had sent, including by refusing to search for and submit key communications between executives that might have established the role they played in determining Facebook’s practices for collecting users’ data.

“This investigation involves serious allegations of unlawful business practices by one of the richest companies in the world,” Becerra’s office said in the filing. It said Facebook’s “delays and refusals to comply with the Attorney General’s interrogatories and subpoena should not thwart this important and independent investigation into whether the company violated its users’ privacy and California law.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The California probe is a major new legal headache for Facebook: The attorney general of the Golden State, the home of Facebook and its Silicon Valley peers, also is one of the country’s most powerful. Adding to the stakes, Becerra and his team are simultaneously at work on drawing up regulations to implement the country’s first-ever consumer privacy law, which goes into effect Jan. 1. That state law will regulate the way Facebook and the rest of the tech industry handle user data and is likely to affect those practices outside California.

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Other states also have taken aim at Facebook in recent months. The attorney general of Massachusetts also has gone to court to force Facebook to turn over a similar set of documents on it data-privacy practices. The attorney general of the District of Columbia embarked on a lawsuit in December alleging Facebook violating residents’ privacy. And the attorney general of New York is now leading an investigation of Facebook for privacy and antitrust violations that top law-enforcement officials from 46 states and territories are backing.

Earlier this year, federal regulators concluded their own probe of Facebook by brokering a settlement with the company that requires it to pay $5 billion and submit to new oversight of its practices. But many critics lambasted the Federal Trade Commission for taking too weak a position against Facebook, particularly because it did not directly question Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive officer, or other top officials about their role in setting data-privacy policy.