Two senators—one Republican and one Democrat—are urging the Federal Trade Commission to take a hard line against Facebook in its ongoing negotiations over a privacy settlement.
“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,” write Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.
) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “The commission should pursue deterrent monetary penalties and impose forceful accountability measures on Facebook.”
Facebook stands accused of violating the terms of a 2012 privacy settlement. Prior to that settlement, the FTC had charged Facebook with deceiving customers by telling them their data would be private, then making it public without consent. In settling the charges, Facebook promised to give users “clear and prominent notice” of how their data would be used and to seek user consent before using the data in undisclosed ways.
In the last couple of years, Facebook has been rocked by a series of privacy scandals. Last year, we learned that lax rules for Facebook APIs allowed app developers to harvest user data on a vast scale. The data harvesters included a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica that also did work for the Donald Trump campaign.
Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in early 2018, Facebook has been embroiled in a seeminglyendlesslist of otherprivacycontroversies. We don’t know which of these issues the FTC is investigating, but there seems to be plenty of material for the agency to argue the company hasn’t lived up to its promise to be careful with private user data.
The FTC is split along partisan lines
According to recent reporting from The New York Times, all five of the FTC’s commissioners agree that Facebook’s actions warrant a multibillion dollar penalty. However, there’s a partisan split between the commission’s three-member Republican majority and its two-member Democratic minority about how hard to come down on the social media giant.
The Republican chairman reportedly favors a fine of around $5 billion and has the backing of the other two Republican commissioners. In its last quarterly earnings statement, Facebook said it was budgeting $3 billion to $5 billion for an expected FTC fine.
But the two Democrats consider this inadequate. They not only want a larger fine, they’re also seeking to hold Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally responsible for the company’s missteps. Reports suggest that Facebook has strongly opposed this idea.
While the Republicans could push through a relatively lenient offer along partisan lines, doing so could come with heavy political costs for the agency, since it would expose them to attacks that the Republican majority is soft on misbehaving technology companies. For this reason, the Republican chairman is working hard to win the support of at least one Democratic commissioner.
In their letter, Blumenthal and Hawley firmly side with the Democrats in this intra-agency fight. The pair describes a $5 billion fine as a “bargain” for a company with $15 billion in quarterly revenues, and they also argue that “fines alone are insufficient.”
“The FTC should impose long-term limits on Facebook’s collection and use of personal information,” they write. “It should consider setting rules of the road on what Facebook can do with consumers’ private information, such as requiring the deletion of tracking data, restricting the collection of certain types of information, curbing advertising practices, and imposing a firewall on sharing data between different products.”
The senators also endorse “tough accountability measures and penalties for individual executives and management.” They note reports that the FTC was considering naming Zuckerberg and argued that if “any Facebook executive knowingly broke the consent order or violated the law, it must name them in any further action.”
Hawley shares Trump’s disdain for big tech
The letter reflects Hawley’s distinctive brand of conservative politics. While Republicans are generally hostile to regulation of business, Hawley has long made an exception for large technology companies. Anti-Google commentary featured prominently in Hawley’s 2018 Senate campaign.
While this stance puts Hawley at odds with conservative orthodoxy, it may have a significant constituency among Republican voters. Donald Trump himself has repeatedly attacked technology companies, including Facebook.
As technology companies have become more central to the nation’s political debates, conservatives increasingly see Silicon Valley in the same light as Hollywood: as a powerful, predominantly liberal cultural force that tries to marginalize conservative perspectives.
So far, most Republicans have remained true to free-market orthodoxy, which is why you see the FTC’s Republican majority favoring a more lenient stance in the Facebook case. The question is whether Hawley and Trump represent the future of conservatism—a future where big technology companies are seen not as exemplars of American capitalism but as left-wing combatants in the culture wars.