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FTC Fines Facebook $5 Billion for Privacy Violations

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  • 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.”

FTC Announcement 

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.

FTC Findings

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.

Response

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)

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Angled Toilet Designed to Shorten Employees’ Bathroom Breaks Met With Criticism

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  • A British company, StandardToilet, has filed a patent for a toilet fixture designed with a downward-sloping seat. 
  • The product is meant to be uncomfortable to sit on for more than five minutes, in an effort to reduce bathroom breaks and increase employee productivity.
  • StandardToilet also says their product will reduce bathroom lines in public spaces and serve better for people’s health.
  • The company’s idea has been supported by some, but largely slammed by others who claim it promotes an unhealthy expectation of workplace productivity and is inconsiderate to a range of users with differing needs.

A New Type of Toilet

A British startup has developed a toilet designed to be uncomfortable to sit on for longer than five minutes in an effort to increase workplace productivity.

StandardToilet has filed a patent for a toilet fixture with a seating surface sloped forward between 11-13 degrees. The company claims that this design will decrease the time that employees spend taking bathroom breaks, thus allowing them to devote more minutes to work. 

“In modern times, the workplace toilet has become private texting and social media usage space,” StandardToilet says on their website.  

The company estimates that about £16 billion ($20.8 billion) are lost annually to the time that people are spending using the bathroom at work in the U.K. They claim that reducing time spent sitting on the toilet will save about £4 billion of that sum. 

Mahabir Gill, the founder of StandardToilet, told Wired that sitting on the angled fixture for more than five minutes will cause strain on the legs, but “not enough to cause health issues.”

“Anything higher than that would cause wider problems,” Gill said. “Thirteen degrees is not too inconvenient, but you’d soon want to get off the seat quite quickly.”   

StandardToilet says that in addition to increasing employee productivity, their design will shorten bathroom lines in public places such as shopping malls and train stations.

They also claim studies have suggested that flat-surfaced toilets used now can cause medical issues, like swollen haemorrhoids and weakening of pelvic muscles. The company says its product can reduce musculoskeletal disorder “through promoting the engagement of upper leg muscles.”

Response to StandardToilet

While news of the proposed time-saving toilet has been supported by some, like the British Toilet Association (BTA), an organization that campaigns for better toilet facilities, it was also largely met with criticism. Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, an assistant professor of design history at Purdue University in Indiana, expressed that the idea is a bit controlling. 

“In an office, the one space you have where you can find privacy is often the toilet,” Kaufmann-Buhler told Wired. “So, god forbid that we want to make the one place where workers should have at least some autonomy – the toilet – another place where people impose the very capitalist idea that people should always be working.”

Kaufmann-Buhler’s sentiment was echoed across Twitter, where people were upset by StandardToilet’s motive.

Others pointed out the discomfort StandardToilet’s design would bring to those with physical disabilities.

The company told HuffPost in an email that the product isn’t designed to take the place of toilets for people with disabilities. StandardToilet’s website also notes that another benefit of the slanted toilet is “reduction in overspill usage of disabled facilities.” 

Nadine Vogel is the CEO of Springboard Consulting, a company that works with other businesses on how to serve workers with disabilities. She noted to HuffPost that there are other kinds of hindrances that might justify more time in the bathroom.

Vogel brought up examples of diabetic people testing their glucose levels or others simply needing a break for their mental health.

 “The fact that the concern is extended employee breaks ― well, what about people that have some kind of mental health situation that actually need that kind of longer break?” Vogel said.

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Guardian) (Wired)

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Pinkwashing: The Dark Side of the Breast Cancer Awareness Industry Explained…

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Chances are you’ve seen a handful of breast cancer awareness campaigns throughout the years from the pink ribbon slapped on NFL footballs to your favorite yogurt brand changing their packing to pink every October, which is breast cancer awareness month. But did you know that there are many pink ribbon products that contain chemicals linked to cancer? 

Breast cancer activists call this phenomenon pinkwashing and it’s been happening for years. Whether it be a carcinogenic chemical found in pink ribbon perfume to pink ribbons found on alcohol, a known risk factor for breast cancer, pinkwashing touches many industries. In this deep dive, we’re going to look at why companies want to pinkwash and why it has changed how people around the world participate in breast cancer awareness campaigns. 

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Pinterest, The Knot, and Brides Will No Longer Promote Plantation Weddings

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  • Pinterest and The Knot, popular sites used for wedding planning, agreed to stop promoting content and venues that romanticize slave plantations. 
  • The decision was made after the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change penned a letter to the companies explaining the pain and insensitivity behind glamorizing properties once used to brutalize people. 
  • Brides magazine has since also agreed to enact a similar policy, though sites like Zola said promoting such content does not violate their discrimination policy.

Criticism of Plantation Weddings 

Two of the biggest internet platforms used for wedding content and planning, Pinterest and The Knot, are changing their policies to stop promoting any wedding content that romanticizes slave plantations. 

Plantation weddings have become very common in the wedding industry, however, they are often criticized for glorifying sites that were once used to enslave and brutalize millions of black people. 

Celebrities like Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds still face criticism for hosting their 2012 wedding at Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina. In addition to being a popular wedding venue, the property also offers history tours of its original slave cabins.

Other venues have been blasted for using decorative language that critics say minimizes the painful history of the locations. For instance, some properties have been described as “breathtaking” scenes with an “elaborate past,” or were said to have “a touch of southern charm.”

Policy Changes 

The decision to implement policy changes comes at the urging of the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. The group sent letters to Pinterest and the Knot Worldwide, which owns The Knot and Wedding Wire, asking the companies to stop promoting plantations altogether. 

“The decision to glorify plantations as nostalgic sites of celebration is not an empowering one for the Black women and justice-minded people who use your site,” the letter, reviewed by Buzzfeed News, read. 

“Plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen,” the letter continued. “The wedding industry routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry.”

Pinterest responded to the letter with their own announcement, saying, “Weddings should be a symbol of love and unity. Plantations represent none of those things. We are grateful to Color of Change for bringing attention to this disrespectful practice. We are working to limit the distribution of this content and accounts across our platform, and continue to not accept advertisements for them.”

Pinterest has already started moderating and limiting plantation wedding content on its platform that appeared in search recommendations and notifications. It is also working to de-index Google searches for plantation weddings that direct to their site. 

Users call still search “plantation weddings” and similar terms on the site but they will be warned that some of the results may violate the site’s policies.

Source: Pinterest

Meanwhile, the Knot said it was working with Color of Change to prohibit vendors on its sites “from using language that romanticizes or glorifies a history that includes slavery.” Vendors who do not follow that rule will be removed, the company said.

“Color of Change brought an issue to light about the way venues with a history of slavery describe their properties to couples,” the Knot said in a statement. “We’re grateful to Color of Change for bringing this issue to us and for partnering with us to help educate our vendors on how to respectfully market their businesses to all couples.”

The Knot clarified that plantations will still be able to list themselves as venues. Their new guidelines are simply designed to ensure that vendors aren’t using language such as “elegant” or “charming” when referencing history that includes slavery. 

The language policy will apply to all venues listed on the Knot, not just ones that market themselves as plantations. A representative from the Knot told Buzzfeed New,  “You can imagine there could be former plantations that maybe have changed their names to manors or farms.”

The Knot’s new guidelines are expected to be officially released in the next few weeks as they continue to comb through the current vendors listed on their site. 

Color of Change Reached Out to Other Wedding Content Giants 

Along with the Knot and Pinterest, Color of Change also sent letters to Zola, Martha Stewart Weddings, and Brides. The group said they specifically called on these platforms to make a change because millions of couples turn to them for not only wedding inspiration but also information about potential vendors. 

Color of Change also argued that because these wedding planning platforms don’t profit directly from weddings themselves, they might be more motivated to hear their concerns. 

A spokesperson for Color of Change called Pinterest and the Knot’s efforts an “extremely massive step.” Following the news of two platform’s changes, the spokesperson added that Brides also reached out and requested a meeting.

Brides later issued a statement to Bustle saying, “Brides is an inclusive place where everyone can feel celebrated. Content glorifying plantations is not in line with our core values. We have removed these references and are actively working with Color of Change to evolve our guidelines to help ensure all our couples are supported, respected and inspired.”

As for the other platforms, in a statement to BuzzFeed News, Emily Forrest, a communications manager for Zola responded with: “After reviewing this complaint we determined it did not violate our non-discrimination policy. While we may not always agree with couples on all of their wedding details, we also respect their right to choose where and how they want to get married.”

As of now, Martha Stewart Weddings has not responded to the letter. 

See what others are saying: (Buzzfeed News) (The Washington Post) (Bustle)  

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