Facebook Won’t Get Past the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Anytime Soon

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The escalation underscores how states are emerging as formidable privacy regulators of large tech companies.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal continues to haunt Facebook. The company is at the center of yet another investigation connected to the incident more than 18 months after it was revealed. This time, it’s California that’s seeking to bring the social giant to task: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, on Thursday confirmed that he has been probing Facebook’s privacy practices following the political consultancy firm’s collection of Facebook users’ data without their permission. The probe came to light as California took Facebook to court to try to force the social network to turn over key documents, including the emails of top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

“To see now another attorney needs to escalate the acquisition of documents shows how difficult it is to hold the company accountable and how they fight everything tooth and nail,” said David Carroll, a Parsons professor who plays a central role in the Netflix documentary about the incident called “The Great Hack.”

The escalation underscores how states are emerging as formidable privacy regulators of large tech companies, even after the federal government settled with Facebook about Cambridge Analytica and other data handling mishaps for a record $5 billion (roughly Rs. 35,000 crores).

States are stepping up to continue the fight as critics say the Federal Trade Commission let the tech titan off too easily earlier this year. The Democratic attorneys general of both Massachusetts and District of Columbia have also gone to court to force Facebook to share similar documents related to the scandal and unseal internal communications about Cambridge Analytica.

Carroll called state attorneys general a “second line of defense for consumer protection” in the absence of a dedicated federal privacy regulator. Attorneys general “are picking up where the federal government has failed to meet the needs for enforcement and accountability,” he said.

Carroll also says the ongoing legal battles raise questions about the terms of the settlement the Federal Trade Commission reached with the company. My colleague Tony Romm previously reported the agency stopped short of imposing some of the tougher penalties it once considered, including imposing more direct liability for Zuckerberg. The agency also stopped short of directly questioning him.

“It shows that the settlement that granted Zuckerberg relief from liability is a real gift to him considering that AGs are still trying to get answers,” Carroll said.

States are also getting in on the antitrust fever now gripping Washington. The New York state attorney general is now leading an antitrust probe of the company, which more than 40 other states and territories have signed on to. The probe is wide-ranging, and it’s likely that the law enforcement officials could take a closer look at Facebook’s privacy practices as part of that probe. Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, has said the investigation will look into whether the company “may have endangered consumer data.”

And Facebook may have other problems. Hours before Becerra announced he was taking the company to court for documents tied to the privacy scandal, a separate trove of documents involving Facebook executives’ communications were leaked that could have implications as the company is under antitrust scrutiny both at the state level and in Washington.

NBC News reports the documents show how Zuckerberg “oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip.”

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