Becerra’s Facebook probe watched closely by tech firms

by Chris Reed | November 12, 2019 2:23 pm

After keeping quiet for more than a year about the investigation, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra confirmed last week that California is suing Facebook [1]after a state probe found it had allegedly violated privacy laws.

In documents filed with the Superior Court in San Francisco, Becerra’s office said the probe began in June 2018 in response to the scandal involving the Cambridge Analytica political consulting firm, which had been given access to the online activities of 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge. The most prominent client of the firm, which closed last year, was the Trump presidential campaign in 2015-16.

“What initially began as an inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica scandal expanded over time to become an investigation into whether Facebook has violated California law by, among other things, deceiving users and ignoring its own policies,” the court filing noted.

The possibility that California was pursuing its own probe was detailed in an Oct. 31 story[2] in the New York Times about Becerra’s absence from a meeting[3] of state attorneys general in September in Washington in which they discussed a coordinated probe of Facebook and Google. Becerra continues to decline to answer if his office is investigating Google.

And the attorney general said the Facebook probe would still be unrevealed if it wasn’t for the fact that the Menlo Park-based company had stopped cooperating when given subpoenas. “If Facebook had complied with our legitimate investigative requests, we would not be making this announcement today. But we must move our investigation forward,” he said at a news conference.

The state’s complaints about Facebook not following its own policies and stonewalling investigations echoed those made by officials of the Obama and Trump administrations. These practices were cited in July when the Federal Trade Commission announced it had fined the social media giant $5 billion[4] for privacy violations.

Probe seen as foreshadowing new state online privacy law

Becerra’s announcement was followed closely on tech websites not just because it ended the mystery about what his office was doing about Facebook when so many other states were pursuing the company. It’s also because the Golden State’s lawsuit is seen as a harbinger of how aggressively Becerra will act when the state’s landmark online privacy law – the California Consumer Privacy Act[5] – takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The law was signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in summer 2018.

The state law is similar to a measure[6] adopted by the European Union that took effect earlier in 2018. The EU law says consumers can opt out from having information collected about them. If they don’t opt out, consumers must be told upon request what information has been harvested from their online browsing.

Data companies are deeply worried that California’s standards will become the model for a future federal online privacy law and for measures adopted in other states. But many other firms are worried as well.

This summer, as CalWatchdog reported[7], the California Chamber of Commerce and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business launched a long-shot bid to get lawmakers to change their minds and either repeal or revise the state online privacy law.

Among the business groups’ complaints: The law is written so broadly that it may prevent businesses from using basic information gathered from repeat customers; and the law is so poorly crafted that it appears to bar businesses from using vast swaths of anonymized data showing online trends from a macro level. Such information is considered a crucial marketing tool.

Lawmakers passed on making any changes.

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  5. California Consumer Privacy Act:
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