Privacy Advocates Seek To Intervene In FTC Settlement With Facebook

The advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center has gone to court in an attempt to intervene in the Federal Trade Commission's proposed $5 billion privacy settlement with Facebook.

The proposed settlement, approved by a 3-2 vote at the FTC, “is neither procedurally or substantively fair,” EPIC argues in a motion filed Friday with U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly in the District of Columbia.

EPIC adds the settlement “does not contain adequate provisions to accomplish its goal of ensuring consumer privacy on Facebook,” and “is clearly not in the public interest.”

The deal, announced earlier this week, requires Facebook to pay $5 billion and accept new oversight on privacy.



The settlement won't be finalized unless it's approved by a federal district court. On Wednesday, the Justice Department officially asked the district court to endorse the deal. EPIC is now seeking to intervene in that proceeding.

If approved by the court, the FTC's settlement with Facebook will resolve an investigation into whether the company violated the terms of a 2012 consent decree. That earlier order includes terms prohibiting Facebook from misrepresenting its privacy practices, and from misrepresenting the extent to which it makes users' information available to third parties.

Facebook allegedly violated that earlier decree in several ways, including by allowing outside developers to harvest users' data. The FTC began investigating Facebook's compliance with the 2012 order after news broke that President Trump's data consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, harvested information about tens of millions of Facebook users.

The negotiated deal covers all violations of the prior consent decree that occurred before June 12, 2019. It also covers any other pre-June 12 violations of Section 5 of the FTC Act, as well as consumer-protection violations, that are currently known by the agency.

It isn't yet clear what other potential violations were covered by the deal. Among the unresolved questions are whether the settlement immunizes Facebook from prosecution for allegedly violating children's privacy laws.

EPIC has filed five separate complaints with the FTC about Facebook since 2012. Among other complaints, EPIC and other advocates alleged last year that Facebook uses facial-recognition technology without people's consent. And in 2016, EPIC and the Center for Digital Democracy urged the FTC to prohibit Facebook from transferring data to itself about users of the WhatsApp messaging service.

EPIC now argues it should be allowed to intervene in the case because the settlement would cover its complaints.

“The 'practical consequence' of denying EPIC’s motion to intervene would be to extinguish all of EPIC’s pending FTC complaints against Facebook -- all without EPIC having a voice in the decision,” the group writes in its court papers.

“There are hundreds of millions of Americans whose privacy rights are implicated by this proposed consent decree,” EPIC says. “Many consumer and privacy organizations have diligently studied Facebook’s business practices and proposed specific changes that could safeguard consumers.”

Other privacy advocates, including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Center for Digital Democracy, said they may attempt to get involved in the court proceedings.

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