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Strike three: FTC says Meta still failing to protect user privacy

The US Federal Trade Commission is preparing to take action against Facebook parent company Meta for a third time over claims it failed to protect user privacy, as required under a 2020 agreement Meta made with the regulator.

The FTC said that Meta has failed to fully comply with the order, and it also alleges Zuckercorp misled parents about safety features in its Messenger Kids app and misrepresented how much access app developers had to private user data. 

According to the FTC, Meta’s Messenger Kids app includes parental controls that restrict who children are allowed to interact with. There’s a simple workaround for such restrictions, though: group chats and group video calls enabled unapproved contacts to get through whitelists, which the FTC said not only violates its previous agreement with Meta, but also the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). 

The FTC also alleges that Meta didn’t cut off third-party developer access to user data in 2018 as it agreed to do, with some outside developers able to access user data until mid-2020.

As a result, the FTC wants to modify its 2020 agreement with Meta to strengthen existing rules as well as adding a blanket prohibition against monetizing data collected from anyone under 18, as well as making any data harvested before an individual’s 18th birthday permanently off limits for monetization.

Proposed changes also include a requirement similar to the FTC’s agreement with Twitter that would pause the launch of all new products and services pending third-party assessment that the changes comply with the FTC’s privacy requirements. The rules imposed on Meta by the FTC would be extended under the new order to include any future acquisitions by Meta and would expand limits on the use of facial recognition technology included in the 2020 order. 

“Facebook has repeatedly violated its privacy promises. The company’s recklessness has put young users at risk, and Facebook needs to answer for its failures,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

This is strike three for Zuck and friends

“This is the third time the FTC has taken action against Facebook for allegedly failing to protect users’ privacy,” the FTC said. The Commission added in its latest Order to Show Cause [PDF] that recent investigations turned up “serious deficiencies and [a] sheer number of total gaps and weaknesses [that] overall present substantial risks to the public” in Meta’s implementation of the FTC’s 2020 order. 

If the FTC manages to get its changes approved, and barring a surprise response from Meta there’s little reason to assume it won’t (there are only 3 commissioners on the FTC, all Democrats, who voted 3-0 to approve the Order to Show Cause), it would be the second time the original 2012 order was modified because Meta failed to follow orders.

The 2012 order subjected Meta (then Facebook) to 20 years of biannual privacy reviews and other restrictions, which the FTC said Facebook violated “within months of it being finalized” by “engaging in misrepresentations that helped fuel the Cambridge Analytica scandal.” 

The 2020 agreement resolved violations of the 2012 agreement and imposed a $5 billion civil penalty and additional rules, like an independent assessor. Now, the FTC says that Meta has not only violated those rules, but COPPA as well. 

In a statement posted to Twitter, Meta spokesperson Andy Stone called the FTC’s claims a political stunt that was unprecedented, and said Meta would be fighting the order.

“Let’s be clear about what the FTC is trying to do: usurp the authority of Congress to set industry-wide standards and instead single out one American company while allowing Chinese companies, like TikTok, to operate without constraint,” Stone said in his tweet. 

“We have spent vast resources building and implementing an industry-leading privacy program under the terms of our FTC agreement,” Stone added.

Meta has 30 days to respond to the FTC’s order to show cause (explain why it shouldn’t go ahead with the motion), at which time the Commission will “carefully consider the facts and any arguments” before ultimately, in all likelihood, putting its foot down on Meta yet again. ®