Facebook, Google and other tech giants may soon have to disclose otherwise secret details of their data handling practices to the Federal Trade Commission, Chairman Joseph Simons recently told the Senate.
“I agree with you that the FTC’s section 6(b) authority could be used to provide some much needed transparency to consumers about the data practices of large technology companies,” Simons said in a recent letter to Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), referring to a provision in the FTC Act that allows the agency to subpoena private business information. “We are developing plans to issue 6(b) orders in the technology area.”
The advocacy group Public Knowledge quickly cheered news of the planned investigation, adding that the results could shape new laws.
“A study is no substitute for strong enforcement, but a 6(b) study, which allows the agency to compel production of documents, can lead to enforcement and can build a record for new legislation if needed,” Charlotte Slaiman, policy counsel at Public Knowledge, stated. “We hope the agency will focus on the ways that data practices can further entrench incumbent firms and make it more difficult for newer or smaller firms to compete effectively.”
Word of the impending investigation comes a little more than one year after news broke that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested information from millions of Facebook users. Since then, there's been a steady stream of reports detailing questionable privacy practices by tech companies.
Among other examples, The Associated Press reported last October that Google stores location data gleaned from some services -- including search and maps -- even when people turn off the "Location History" setting. People who want to prevent Google from storing any location data must turn off a separate setting -- "Web and App Activity."
In December, The New York Timesreported that Facebook shared unsuspecting users' data with “partners” like Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify. And earlier this year it emerged that Facebook distributed a “research” app to teens that scooped up a trove of data -- including the sites they visited, their locations and phone use.
And those are only some of the known practices. A full investigation may well uncover yet more examples of problematic approaches to privacy, adding further fuel to calls for new laws.