Key Democrat presses FTC over Facebook settlement's 'dangerous precedent'

Key Democrat presses FTC over Facebook settlement's 'dangerous precedent'
© Aaron Schwartz

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThere's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware Senators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats MORE (D-Wash.) is pressing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over its controversial $5 billion settlement with Facebook, questioning whether the agreement sets a "dangerous precedent" for the future of the agency.  

In a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons on Thursday, Cantwell demanded more information about the settlement, particularly the sections that resolve any privacy violation allegations made against Facebook between 2012-2019.

"I am concerned that the settlement lets Facebook off the hook for unspecified violations, and given the many public reports of Facebook’s mishandling of consumer data, it is difficult to fully understand the impact of this provision on the settlement on the data privacy protection of the millions of U.S. consumers that have used and continue to use Facebook," Cantwell wrote to the chairman. 

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Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote that she is concerned Facebook "will not face another penalty" from the FTC over privacy violations that may have occurred between 2012, the year it came under a consent agreement, and 2019, when it was penalized for violating that agreement. 

She is also questioning whether the settlement went too easy on Facebook executives. 

"I am concerned that the release of Facebook and its officers from legal liability is far too broad and sets a dangerous precedent for future Commission actions," she wrote. 

Cantwell is asking for responses to 10 detailed questions about the scope of the FTC's investigation, the precedent for releasing Facebook's executives from liability for privacy violations, and the effect of that liability shield.

Over the summer, the FTC found that Facebook had violated its 2012 consent decree with the commission, which drew guidelines around how Facebook could collect user data.

Almost as soon as the FTC announced its $5 billion settlement with Facebook in July, bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers emerged with scathing criticism, calling the agreement a slap on the wrist for a company that recorded almost $56 billion in revenue last year. 

As part of the settlement, Facebook is not required to admit to any wrongdoing; the agreement requires the company to create a privacy committee within its board of directors to review company decisions and provide more oversight of Chairman and CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' with Facebook data mining Hillicon Valley: Trump officials propose retaliatory tariffs over French digital tax | FBI classifies FaceApp as threat | Twitter revamps policies to comply with privacy laws | Zuckerberg defends political ads policy Zuckerberg says Trump did not 'lobby' him during dinner MORE

The FTC voted for the settlement along party lines, with both Democratic commissioners dissenting in separate statements claiming Facebook escaped relatively unscathed. The commission has alleged that Facebook deceived its users about their privacy protections while allowing third parties to harvest their data, claiming the company failed to establish a "reasonable privacy program." 

Cantwell is involved in negotiations with Senate Commerce Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerThere's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Trade deal talks expand as Congress debates tech legal shield Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware MORE (R-Miss.) to work up the country's first federal privacy law, which would limit how large tech companies like Facebook can collect and use sensitive user data. 

Those privacy bill talks have stalled in recent months as lawmakers remain divided over how far the law should go.