With high-profile criticism mounting on multiple fronts on issues such as fake news and election interference, Facebook has had a rough few years. But one of the country’s foremost data privacy advocates doesn’t place the blame for such controversies squarely on the social media giant. Rather, he argued that the Federal Trade Commission has played a significant role in events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Brexit and election of President Donald Trump.
“It’s easy to criticize Facebook for their business practices and their disregard for the rights of internet users,” said Electronic Privacy Information Center president and executive director Marc Rotenberg in a speech in Dublin. “However, the real responsibility lies with those who have the authority to regulate internet companies and protect basic rights. We must expect more of those who are responsible for safeguarding the public interest.”
Rotenberg said the FTC has failed to enforce the terms of a consent order that EPIC and other consumer data privacy advocate groups obtained against Facebook in 2011. Specifically, the agency has not found “a single infraction” of the consent order in the seven years since it was approved, he said, adding that, for that reason, he actually has had “a certain amount of sympathy” for the company.
The consent agreement was entered into by Facebook to settle FTC allegations that the tech company deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on the platform private but then repeatedly allowing it to be made public. (Coincidentally, The New York Times reported this week that, according to Facebook documents the newspaper obtained, the social networking company gave Microsoft, Amazon.com and other large tech companies, far greater access to users’ data than it has disclosed.)
“This year we have repeatedly urged the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to take action against Facebook,” but the agency has failed to do so, “so we have asked the U.S. Congress to monitor the developments of the Federal Trade Commission,” Rotenberg was reported as saying.
In his speech, Rotenberg highlighted other issues that EPIC currently is working on, including a Freedom of Information Act request for Trump’s tax records—an undertaking Rotenberg said he is “optimistic” about, predicting that the information would be released “in the next year, perhaps.”
Earlier this week, however, a federal appellate court rejected the request, ruling that the president’s tax returns, like those of any other citizen, are protected by the IRS.
In his address, Rotenberg also encouraged Ireland to fulfill its potential as a critical “influencer” of global social media companies’ actions, particularly in the areas of privacy and hate speech, noting that the republic’s “role as a key regulator of the Internet giants is being watched worldwide.”
“As home to the European headquarters of the world’s biggest social media corporations, Ireland now has a critical responsibility to safeguard fundamental rights in the digital age,” he said. “Enforcement under the GDPR and new laws to address the challenges of fake news and hate crimes in cyberspace should be top priorities for the Irish Government.”