Tim Wu Discusses the 2012 FTC Settlement with Facebook Over Protecting Consumers’ Privacy

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on April 2, 2018


Columbia law professor Tim Wu was a senior advisor at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) during the agency’s investigation of Facebook over a series of complaints that it deceived consumers by failing to keep privacy promises. In 2012, a settlement was reached which required Facebook to take several steps to safeguard consumers’ data. Among the requirements are: giving consumers clear and prominent notice and obtaining their express consent before sharing their information beyond their privacy settings; and maintaining a comprehensive privacy program to protect consumers' information.


In light of the recent revelations about the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvesting data from 50 million Facebook users, Professor Wu shares his skepticism that the social media platform made its agreement with the FTC a priority. Below are a few excerpts from a conversation NPR’s Morning Edition had with Professor Wu, “Facebook Previously Failed to Keep Privacy Promises, Ex-FTC Adviser Says.”


The problem the FTC was confronting was the problem, similar to now, that there were a number of abusive apps that you installed, and then they did a lot more with your data than you thought they were. And one of the big problems is that Facebook gave you the impression that you could control your own privacy by, you know, setting the settings in certain ways, but those settings didn't do anything.


…they prevented some things, but the apps were very easily capable of getting around the settings. So they promised to fix it all up. They entered in a big consent decree. … It was all going to be different. But the problem didn't go away. In fact, those little settings remained fake. The survey app … created by Cambridge Analytica - was able to take the data of people's friends and family and take it all for itself even though Facebook was supposedly not allowing that. So that is the problem. They've basically broken the promise they made to the country in 2011 and the promises they kept making to everybody through these privacy settings.


Facebook is always in the position of serving two masters. If its actual purpose was just trying to connect friends and family, and it didn't have a secondary motive of trying to also prove to another set of people that it could gather as much data as possible and make it possible to manipulate or influence or persuade people, then it wouldn't be a problem.


If Mark Zuckerberg is telling the truth when he says, what I care about is connecting people to their families and friends, that's a very lofty ambition. If that's what he really wants to do, he can do it. But it doesn't mean he'll be the most profitable company in the world. You know, utilities - which is what Facebook is, a social utility - have never been understood as profit centers before.


Listen to the entire conversation or read the transcript: “Facebook Previously Failed to Keep Privacy Promises, Ex-FTC Adviser Says.”