Federal Trade Commission examines Facebook disclosures
WASHINGTON — Federal Trade Commission employees have begun investigating disclosures Facebook Inc.
internal research at the company had identified the harmful effects of its products, according to people familiar with the matter.
Officials are investigating whether Facebook’s research documents indicate it could have violated a 2019 agreement with the agency over privacy concerns, for which the company paid a record fine of $ 5 billion, said one of the people.
The FTC declined to comment.
Internal research has found evidence that the company’s algorithms are divisive and that its Instagram app is harmful to a significant percentage of its users, especially teenage girls, among other findings. The documents served as the basis for the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series.
In a statement, Facebook said it was “always ready to answer questions from regulators and will continue to cooperate with government investigations.”
The company previously said that numerous research papers published by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen had been misinterpreted and that the company had “invested heavily in people and technology to keep our platform secure. form”.
The Facebook documents sparked calls from lawmakers and children’s advocates for the FTC to investigate whether Facebook has engaged in deceptive or deceptive behavior.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Connecticut), who chairs the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, said one of the FTC’s concerns was whether Facebook had withheld information from the agency regarding its internal research.
“I think the FTC should be really angry if Facebook kept this material hidden from them like it did from us in Congress and the public,” Blumenthal said in an interview. He said he and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tennessee) asked Facebook in August about internal research into the effects of its products on children, “and they dodged our questions.”
Three other lawmakers – Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) And Representatives Kathy Castor (D., Fla.) And Lori Trahan (D., Mass.) – sent a letter to the FTC on Oct. 8. They urged the commission to use its enforcement powers to ensure that all “powerful technology platforms comply with their public and political statements on children and adolescents. [sic] privacy.”
Separately, the Securities and Exchange Commission contacted Ms. Haugen’s attorneys, according to one of the attorneys representing her. The SEC did not comment.
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The FTC has also been in touch with Ms Haugen’s team, according to another person familiar with the matter.
Unlike the SEC, the FTC does not have a formal program to protect whistleblowers like Ms. Haugen. The FTC is nonetheless a key government regulator of doing business on the Internet in its role of monitoring the market for unfair and deceptive business practices.
One question likely explored by FTC staff members is whether Facebook has a legal obligation to warn users of risks revealed by internal research results, former FTC Chairman William Kovacic said. now professor of law at George Washington University. If Facebook didn’t do this, it could be a deceptive business practice, he said.
David Vladeck, former head of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, said the agency could also determine whether the company was acting appropriately, given the findings of the company’s study. However, he added, not every case might be easy to prove.
“You have to take into account Facebook’s denial that its research really shows any harm, and [its position] that the whistleblower has misrepresented or misrepresented the research, ”he said.
The FTC launched a study of social media platforms last December, asking Facebook and other internet companies detailed questions about how they are tailoring their services for children.
“The questions push to find out how children and families are targeted and classified,” several FTC commissioners wrote in a statement at the time.
One question, for example, required companies to produce “all strategies, plans, presentations, analysis, machine learning or artificial intelligence, and / or efforts to identify patterns of use associated with children and adolescents, validate them. results and / or monetize this use, including all efforts to maintain and / or increase user engagement by children and adolescents. “
Facebook’s 2019 settlement with the FTC came in response to concerns that the information of millions of Facebook users had been inappropriately shared with a political data analysis company, Cambridge Analytica. The FTC has called on Facebook to strengthen its protections on privacy and data security.
The settlement absolved Facebook and its senior officials of any other consumer protection breach known to the FTC at the time, which was criticized as too broad by FTC Democrats who opposed the decision.
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Some observers, including Mr Vladeck, don’t think this will be a hindrance, as the FTC was said to have been unaware of the disclosures in the documents Ms Haugen released until recently.
The FTC is now led by Lina Khan, a critic of big tech companies who aims to make the board a more energetic industry watchdog.
“Under the new leadership, they recognize their role and the commitment they’ve made, and they intend to do a better job,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a goal-oriented organization. non-profit that campaigns for the protection of privacy and consumers. in line.
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