New York US investigators are known for clear statements. Unlike German prosecutors, they do not have the task of investigating objectively, but of compiling the incriminating points. And yet the lawsuit filed by Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine on Monday is extraordinary. In sharp words, she attacks not only the Facebook parent company Meta, but also its founder Mark Zuckerberg personally.
“Zuckerberg has always been aware that Facebook’s success depends on convincing users that their data is private, and at the same time selling as much access to these users as possible,” the lawsuit states. Zuckerberg orchestrated a ten-year campaign to mislead users and “behind closed doors designed the platform in such a way that abuse is possible”.
In 2018, Racine sued Facebook for the same incident. That process is still ongoing, but in March a judge ruled that Racine had waited too long to add Zuckerberg as a defendant in it. In 2019, Facebook agreed to pay five billion dollars in a similar case with the US regulator FTC.
“Since filing our groundbreaking lawsuit against Facebook,” the company has been fighting resistance, Racine said. However, they remained persistent and “followed the evidence up to Mr. Zuckerberg”. He was personally involved in the failure to protect user data, “which led directly to the Cambridge Analytica incident”.
Cambridge Analytica was a British data analysis company founded in 2013, which went under in 2018 in the wake of the scandal over the covert influence on the US presidential election. The company, which is close to conservative politicians, had offered its services in numerous countries.
With the help of an app, Cambridge Analytica, which had nothing to do with the eponymous university, had evaluated millions of user profiles. This allowed the presidential campaign of Donald Trump to place targeted ads that were supposed to prompt or dissuade voters from voting, depending on their political attitudes. According to experts, the team also relied on misleading statements.
Facebook made this approach possible by opening its interface to third-party providers in the hope of higher revenues, according to the accusation. Zuckerberg was aware of the risks associated with this strategy.
In an e-mail on the subject of data leaks, he had written that “there is a clear risk on the part of advertisers”. Zuckerberg has been Facebook’s CEO since 2012 and controls about 60 percent of the voting shares; he has been closely involved in day-to-day operations.
After the scandal became public, Facebook restricted the amount of information that external app developers can view. Zuckerberg and Facebook are expected to defend themselves against the lawsuit. It could end with a personal fine against the CEO – a rarity also in the USA.