The FTC’s $5 billion privacy fine on Facebook could’ve been much, much bigger

The federal government almost fined Facebook tens of billions of dollars for privacy violations — and nearly held CEO Mark Zuckerberg accountable — instead of the eventual $5 billion settlement between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the social media giant.

The $5 billion dollar penalty was still an all-time record for an FTC fine, but the agency’s privacy investigation could have resulted in a much harsher punishment, according to The Washington Post.

The fine came after a 16-month investigation into how Facebook treats private data spurred on by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. According to the Post, the FTC originally hoped to hold Zuckerberg personally accountable for future privacy violations and hope to fine the company tens of billions of dollars.

If the regulator had gone after Zuckerberg, he could have been slapped with an FTC order, which would leave him financially liable if Facebook was found to have violated user privacy in the future.

The FTC eventually abandoned the idea because it was worried about winning in court if Facebook challenged its ruling, the Post wrote. The agency is tiny compared to Facebook, with just a $306 million annual budget last year.

Facebook also had a lot to lose in a protracted court battle, especially if top executives were hauled in front of a judge and grilled by a government lawyer, but was willing to go that far to prevent a massive fine or liability for its top executives.

We reached out to both the FTC and Facebook to see if they could give us more clarity. The FTC has yet to get back to us, but a spokeswoman for Facebook declined to comment.

The FTC’s eventual decision to go with a much smaller fine — and no personal accountability for Zuckerberg — has been seen as something as a slap on the wrist. While $5 billion certainly is a lot of money, and significantly higher than the previous record-holder of a $22.5 million fine against Google, it’s just a small fraction of the $55 billion in revenue Facebook brought in for 2018.

Facebook’s settlement with the FTC will also likely include some additional federal oversight, but it’s not clear what that would actually entail, or if it would spur any meaningful change for users.

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