With no clear liability against Facebook, professor calls for stronger data privacy laws

"The FTC investigation is the most significant legal threat Facebook has faced, and could lead to a massive fine for the social network.

We spoke with professor Woodrow Hartzog, who specializes in privacy and data protection law, to explain the possible legal fallout from this investigation. Professor Hartzog is a professor of law and computer science and holds a joint appointment in the School of Law and College of Computer Science.

What is the basis of the FTC investigation into Facebook?

In 2011, Facebook signed a contract with the FTC called a consent order. It’s an agreement in which Facebook promises not to make any misrepresentations about privacy or data security, to give notice to users if it uses certain nonpublic information, and to create a comprehensive privacy program. This complicates the investigation because if you look at the text of the consent order, it’s actually not immediately clear whether Facebook’s actions violated any of the terms of the consent order.It is likely that the FTC is going to investigate, put public pressure on Facebook, and probably force a little transparency from the social network. But I’m not entirely sure that the result of that investigation is going to lead to a conclusion that Facebook violated the consent order. If you look at the facts that have been reported so far, the system worked exactly as Facebook intended it to. Facebook had a process by which third parties could collect data on Facebook users who agreed to share data with those third-party developers. The system was designed to allow massive amounts of information to be collected on Facebook users under the auspices that permission was given in hard-to-find boilerplate terms of use that nobody reads. The real problem is a breach of trust by the developer who collected the information.Whether users’ privacy settings were visible is another question."