Federal regulators investigating Facebook for mishandling its users’ personal information have set their sights on the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, exploring his past statements on privacy and weighing whether to seek new, heightened oversight of his leadership.
The discussions about how to hold Zuckerberg accountable for Facebook’s data lapses have come in the context of wide-ranging talks between the Federal Trade Commission and Facebook that could settle the government’s probe of more than a year, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because the FTC’s inquiry is confidential under law.
Such a move could create new legal, political and public-relations headaches for one of Silicon Valley’s best-known — and most image-conscious — corporate leaders. Zuckerberg is Facebook’s co-founder, chief executive, board chairman and most powerful stock owner, and a sanction from the federal government would be seen as a rare rebuke to him and the tech giant’s “move fast and break things” ethos.
In recent weeks, Zuckerberg has promised to reorient Facebook into a “privacy-focused communications platform” as the company looks to change its “reputation” and focus instead on secure, intimate communications between users along with content that “won’t stick around forever.”
But just this week, Facebook revealed another privacy mishap, admitting it mishandled millions of users’ passwords for Instagram, the company’s photo-sharing app. Facebook tucked news of the development into an old blog post Thursday as Washington scrambled over the release of the US government’s findings from its probe of Russia and the 2016 election.
To privacy advocates and congressional critics, Facebook’s move amounted to the latest sign that the company and its leaders have failed to learn from past mistakes — and should face heightened oversight.
“The days of pretending this is an innocent platform are over, and citing Mark in a large-scale enforcement action would drive that home in spades,” said Roger McNamee, an early investor in the company and one of Zuckerberg’s foremost critics.
In past investigations of Facebook, the US government opted to spare Zuckerberg from the most onerous scrutiny. Documents obtained from the FTC under federal open-records laws reflect that the agency considered, then backed down from putting Zuckerberg directly under order during its last settlement with Facebook in 2011. Had it done so, Zuckerberg could have faced fines for future privacy violations.
Asked about the negotiations, Facebook said in a statement it “hope[s] to reach an appropriate and fair resolution.” The FTC declined to comment.
The FTC began investigating Facebook in March 2018 following reports that Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, improperly accessed data on roughly 87 million of the social networking site’s users. The federal probe has focused on whether Facebook violated an agreement, brokered with the FTC in 2011, that required the company to improve its privacy practices. Since then, Facebook has acknowledged a series of additional privacy lapses, including its Instagram admission Thursday.