- The Federal Trade Commission has fined Facebook $5 billion for violating the privacy of customers and imposed new accountability measures and restrictions for Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
- The fine is the largest penalty imposed on a tech company for privacy violations ever, which comes after a yearlong investigation into Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
- The FTC found that Facebook “deceived” their customers by allowing their data to be accessed by apps their friends used, despite telling the public they had stopped that practice.
- The FTC also alleges that Facebook enforced data sharing policies based “on whether Facebook benefited financially from its arrangements with the developer.”
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced Wednesday that it was fining Facebook a record-breaking $5 billion for privacy violations as well as instituting sweeping privacy restrictions and oversight measures.
The penalty represents the largest fine that the FTC has ever imposed on a tech company by far. It is also the biggest penalty ever brought on a company for privacy violations, according to the FTC announcement.
The announcement comes after a yearlong investigation of Facebook over privacy violations.
That investigation was started right after The New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Facebook allowed British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge and build voter profiles from those users data without their consent.
Cambridge Analytica got the data from Facebook users who used a third-party gaming application called “This Is Your Digital Life.”
Although it has been estimated that only around 270,000 people used the app, the users who gave the app permission to access and acquire their data also gave the app permission to do the same for all of their Facebook friends.
That resulted in the personal information of nearly 87 million Facebook users being collected by Cambridge Analytica, despite the fact that the vast majority of those people had never given the firm permission to access their information, or even played the game.
Along with investigating Cambridge Analytica, the FTC’s investigation also expanded to look at other privacy concerns, such as the tech giant’s data-sharing policies with other third-party apps and device-makers that Facebook users might not have understood or been aware of.
All of that culminated in the report and announcement released Wednesday by the FTC.
In addition to the $5 billion fine, the FTC’s announcement also stated that Facebook must “submit to new restrictions and a modified corporate structure that will hold the company accountable for the decisions it makes about its users’ privacy.”
That requirement, the FTC says, is mandated “to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the company violated a 2012 FTC order by deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.”
The FTC goes on to describe the 2012 order in question, saying that it explicitly “prohibited Facebook from making misrepresentations about the privacy or security of consumers’ personal information, and the extent to which it shares personal information.”
The 2012 FTC order also required that Facebook “maintain a reasonable privacy program that safeguards the privacy and confidentiality of user information.”
Violations of 2012 Order
The FTC goes on to outline how Facebook specifically violated the 2012 order. The statement describes numerous instances, but the most significant examples center around privacy disclosures to customers.
For example, in 2012, Facebook put a disclosure on their Privacy Settings page telling users the information they shared with their friends could also be shared with the third-party apps their friends used.
The FTC claims that four months later, Facebook removed the disclosure “even though it was still sharing data from an app user’s Facebook friends with third-party developers.”
Then in 2014, Facebook announced they would stop letting third-party developers collect data about the friends of app users. However, the FTC says that Facebook separately told the developers that they could continue to access that data until April 2015.
Even then, Facebook still waited “until at least June 2018 to stop sharing user information with third-party apps used by their Facebook friends,” the FTC said.
The statement then goes on to say, “Facebook did not screen the developers or their apps before granting them access to vast amounts of user data.”
Facebook also claimed it had consequences for policy violations by third-parties, but it “did not enforce such policies consistently and often based enforcement of its policies on whether Facebook benefited financially from its arrangements with the developer,” the FTC alleged.
New Restrictions & Overhauls
In addition to spelling out Facebook’s privacy violations, the FTC announcement also included some of the new restrictions and oversight measures that Facebook will have to comply with under the settlement.
To ensure accountability with Facebook’s board of directors, the order will create “an independent privacy committee of Facebook’s board of directors,” in order to remove “unfettered control by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg over decisions affecting user privacy.”
The settlement also requires the company to “designate compliance officers who will be responsible for Facebook’s privacy program,” and gives a third-party assessor more power to evaluate Facebook’s privacy programs.
Regarding restrictions the settlement imposes, Facebook will now have to conduct privacy reviews for any new or modified products and services before they can be implemented.
It will also be required to document any data breach involving 500 or more users.
The FTC statement continues to include a laundry list of new requirements, like exercising more oversight over third-party apps, encrypting passwords, and more.
Notably, it also requires Facebook to “establish, implement, and maintain a comprehensive data security program.”
Also of huge significance is that these new restrictions and accountability measures will also apply to Facebook-owned companies WhatsApp and Instagram.
The decision was approved by the FTC’s commissioners in a 3-to-2 vote earlier this month, with the three Republican commissioners voting to approve the settlement and the two Democrat commissioners voting to oppose.
In a statement to The New York Times, the three Republican commissioners, including agency chairman, Joseph Simons, said the settlement “will provide significant deterrence not just to Facebook, but to every other company that collects or uses consumer data.”
However, the two Democratic commissioners argued that the settlement did not do enough. They said that the $5 billion fine is just a slap on the wrist for Facebook, which made $55.8 billion in revenues last year alone.
They also pointed out that the settlement did not actually do anything to change or restrict Facebook’s ability to collect and share their user’s personal information.
“The proposed settlement does little to change the business model or practices that led to the recidivism,” Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra wrote in his dissenting statement. “Nor does it include any restrictions on the company’s mass surveillance or advertising tactics.”
The Democratic commissioners also reportedly disliked the settlement because they wanted to take the case to court, and felt that the Facebook executives should have been held personally accountable.
The Republican commissioners, however, have said that they did not have a strong enough case to move it to court.
See what others are saying: (The Chicago Tribune) (The Washington Post) (The New York Times)
UK Now Considering Its Own Digital Currency as China Eases Tone on Bitcoin
- On Monday, the United Kingdom became the latest country to consider a central bank-backed digital currency.
- While that currency isn’t technically a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and would not remove existing physical cash from the economy, it would allow households to have accounts directly with the country’s central bank.
- China, which is currently conducting trial runs of a central bank digital currency, called Bitcoin an “investment alternative” on Sunday — signaling a noticeable change in tone following the country’s previous crackdowns on the crypto market.
- Though the People’s Bank of China said it will not ease its current crypto restrictions, industry insiders said they are nonetheless watching for any regulatory changes.
UK Considering Its Own Digital Currency
British Finance Minister Rishi Sunak instructed the Bank of England to look into potentially backing a digital currency Monday morning.
According to Sunak, that central bank digital currency (CBDC) — at least colloquially — might eventually be called “Britcoin.”
As Reuters explained, such a currency “would potentially allow businesses and consumers to hold accounts directly with the bank and to sidestep others when making payments, upending the lenders’ role in the financial system.”
A British CBDC would not replace physical cash or existing bank accounts. It also wouldn’t technically be a cryptocurrency, though the concept of CBDCs is inspired by crypto.
The United Kingdom is just the latest country in Europe exploring a CBDC option. For example, Sweden has suggested that it could launch a digital currency by 2026, and the European Union has said it may integrate an electronic euro as soon as 2025.
China Eases Tone on Bitcoin
It’s not just Europe. China may very well be on the cusp of launching its own digital currency. In fact, it’s already given away millions of that currency through trials being conducted in several cities.
That said, China’s end goal is currently a little different than Britain’s. Once live, China aims to have its CBDC replace some of the country’s cash.
On Sunday, China also indicated that it’s beginning to warm up to cryptocurrencies. Despite banning local crypto exchanges in 2017, among other actions, China’s central bank has now referred to Bitcoin as an “investment alternative.”
According to CNBC, industry insiders have taken note of the “progressive” nature of that comment and said they’re watching closely for any regulatory changes made by the bank; however, for now, the bank’s deputy governor said it plans to keep its current crypto restrictions in place.
See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Associated Press) (CNBC)
Robinhood Crypto Trading Crashes Twice as Dogecoin Multiplies in Value, Enraging Users
- Robinhood users found themselves unable to buy or sell cryptocurrency Thursday night, an issue reminiscent of the app’s decision to restrict GameStop trades earlier this year.
- While Robinhood resolved the problem within a matter of hours, it came amid a massive rally on Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that started out as a joke. The app’s crypto services briefly went down again Friday morning as the rally continued.
- Robinhood has denied that its crypto trading outages were an intentional effort to drive down Dogecoin prices and instead blamed the outages on “unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services.”
- By Friday morning, Dogecoin briefly soared to $0.45, more than 400% of the value it had at the beginning of the week and more than 4,500% of the value it had at the beginning of the year.
Robinhood Crashes Amid Dogecoin Rally
The joke cryptocurrency Dogecoin has surged more than 400% this week alone, but around 10 p.m. EST Thursday night, the free-to-trade app Robinhood tweeted that it was “experiencing issues with crypto trading.” In turn, that caused many of the app’s users to find themselves unable to execute trades.
Dogecoin first began to spike Tuesday ahead of the market debut of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, which raised $86 billion in its first day of trading. That morning, one Dogecoin amounted to about $0.07. By midnight, it had doubled in value. Those gains continued Thursday evening when Dogecoin spiked to around $0.33.
That may not seem like much, but if a person invested $1,000 in Dogecoin when it was selling for around $0.01 at the beginning of the year, by Thursday evening, that person would be sitting on a small fortune of around $33,000 before taxes.
Robinhood Users Angry Yet Again
Many Robinhood users found themselves frustrated when they were unable to sell off their existing dogecoins, especially since the cryptocurrency’s value was rapidly falling.
In fact, within the matter of just over an hour, it had dipped to around $0.25. Using the last example above, that would mean thousands of dollars of missed opportunity.
“Are you going to cover my account?!?” one user asked Robinhood when she found herself unable to sell her dogecoins. “This is a technical error, not my own risk. Ive been trying to execute this transaction for almost two hours! None of my crypto comes up!”
Are you going to cover my account?!? This is a technical error, not my own risk. Ive been trying to execute this transaction for almost two hours!— JT (@JenninNYC) April 16, 2021
None of my crypto comes up! pic.twitter.com/rZ4qoXostn
This is not Robinhood’s only bout with controversy. Earlier this year, the company infamously blocked its users from buying GameStop stock during a frenzy that sent shares from under $20 to nearly $500 at one point; however, Robinhood still allowed users to sell their existing shares — a move that even if it lacked the intention, had the effect of attempting to drive share prices for GameStop down.
Though CEO Vlad Tenev later argued that the company “had no choice” but to restrict buying, Robinhood’s decision nonetheless sparked the ire of its users and even prompted Congressional investigations.
Many Robinhood users were quick to point that out Thursday when they once again found themselves unable to execute trades. Some even accused the company of more nefarious intentions.
Service Restored… Until It Went Down Again
At 11:46 p.m. Thursday night, Robinhood tweeted that crypto trading had been “fully” restored.
“Like others, we were experiencing unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services, which created issues with crypto trading,” the company said. “We’ve resolved the issue and apologize for the inconvenience.
Multiple times since Thursday evening, the company has denied that it intentionally halted crypto trading to affect Dogecoin prices.
“Unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services created temporary issues with crypto trading,” a Robinhood spokesperson told the New York Post Friday. “That’s it, plain and simple.”
On Friday morning, Dogecoin went on to spike at a current 52-week high of $0.45; however, it soon dipped back into the mid- to upper-thirty-cent range, where it remained around 3 p.m. EST.
Meanwhile, amid the surging demand, Robinhood experienced yet another crypto outage around 10:30 a.m. EST Friday. Just before 11 a.m., it said that trading had been restored for most customers.
See what others are saying: (New York Post) (Business Insider) (Coindesk)
Child Safety Advocates Urge Facebook To Scrap Plans for Instagram Kids
- Nearly 100 child safety experts and international organizations sent a letter to Facebook Thursday criticizing its plans to develop an Instagram app for children under 13.
- Facebook claims the app will offer parental controls and is meant to create a safer space for kids, who are often lying about their age to access the normal version of Instagram.
- Still, critics point out that children already on Instagram are unlikely to switch to a kids version. Many also cited concerns about screen time, mental health, and privacy, arguing that younger children are not ready for such a platform.
- U.S. Lawmakers expressed similar concerns earlier this month, saying, “Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation.”
Instagram for Kids
An international group of 35 organizations and 64 experts, coordinated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, released a letter Thursday urging Facebook to abandon its plans to release an Instagram app for kids under 13-years old.
Plans for Instagram Kids have been public for about a month after Buzzfeed News obtained emails about the app in mid-March. Since then, there have been widespread concerns about how such an app could affect children.
Thursday’s letter argues that a version of Instagram targeting under-13-year-olds raises concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health, self-esteem, and commercial pressure. Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the company understands the concerns presented by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“We agree that any experience we develop must prioritize their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it,” she said.
“The reality is that kids are online. They want to connect with their family and friends, have fun and learn, and we want to help them do that in a way that is safe and age-appropriate. We also want to find practical solutions to the ongoing industry problem of kids lying about their age to access apps,” Otway added, noting the reality of how many children interact with age-gated apps.
Unlikely To Stop Children From Joining Regular Instagram
The idea that children would just switch to Instagram Kids received pushback from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In fact, the group’s executive director, Josh Golin, pointed out that most kids who are currently on Instagram are between 10 and 12-years-old, and they likely wouldn’t migrate over to Instagram Kids because it will be perceived as “babyish and not cool enough.”
”The children this will appeal to will be much younger kids,” Golin explained. “So they are not swapping out an unsafe version of Instagram for a safer version. They are creating new demand from a new audience that’s not ready for any type of Instagram product.”
It’s unknown exactly how the app would work, but it would feature content similar to what is allowed in other age-appropriate apps, such as YouTube Kids. One of the few details given out so far is that Instagram Kids will be ad-free and feature parental control options.
Concerns over Instagram Kids has also come from lawmakers. On April 5th Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), alongside Representatives Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing concerns that “children are a uniquely vulnerable population online, and images of kids are highly sensitive data.”
“Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation.”