Facebook is reportedly about to get a slap on the wrist from the federal government for its huge privacy scandal of 2009 and 2010, in which it forced into public view people's once private lists of friends and interests, then made people bend over backward to re-privatize their information. Why isn't the Federal Trade Commission as outraged as privacy groups or the many, many furious Facebook users? Good question!
According to the Wall Street Journal, the FTC is finalizing a settlement under which Facebook be punished for its misdeeds by not being punished at all. It would have to obtain "express affirmative consent" from users before making "material retroactive changes," something that is already illegal, and submit to 20 years of independent privacy audits, so if it does something wrong in the future the FTC can not punish it again.
If this sort of toothless "enforcement" of our nation's privacy laws sounds familiar, that's because it is, because the FTC has coddled corporations time and time and time again. When Twitter was found by the FTC to have neglected to install basic safety safeguards, giving hackers "administrative control" over accounts of such users as the president of the United States of America, Twitter was "punished" in a "deal" that forced the company to not lie and to have some security. No fines, no actual pain, just, you now, try not to break the law in the future. The FTC described this deal, hilariously, as "Twitter will be barred for 20 years from misleading consumers... The company also must establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program." Mislead consumers for 20 years, then, you know, you can start lying again.
When Google drove vans across the country Hoovering people's passwords, social security numbers, credit card numbers and email addresses out of their wifi networks, the FTC sent the company a goddamn letter, and not even a strongly worded one. The letter said "FTC staff has concerns about the internal policies and procedures that gave rise to this data collection" (really? that's a shocker) but "we note that Google has recently announced improvements to its internal processes... Google has made assurances to the FTC... Because of these commitments, we are ending our inquiry into this matter at this time."
The FTC also gave Ashton Kutcher a pass. The commission made a huge deal about how it was going to crack down on bloggers who failed to properly and prominently disclose their conflicts of interest. After Kutcher shamelessly used a special "social media edition" of Details to shill for his investments across Facebook and Tumblr, FTC assistant director Richard Cleland said of course this is something the commission might investigate. His bosses then shut him up, basically giving Kutcher up-front immunity: "Rich Cleland misspoke," said an FTC flack. "The FTC is not and has no plans to investigate Ashton Kutcher" said Cleland's boss.
There's a saying, "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence." But this goes beyond ineptitude. FTC bigwigs have incentives to go easy on big corporations; it is not uncommon for them to take jobs with companies they used to "regulate," or to otherwise indulge in their largess.
A few years after the FTC approved a $57 billion merger of Procter & Gamble and Gillette, P&G hired the chairwoman who had been in place when the deal went through, who had been praised by the telecommunications industry for her "light touch."
That chairwoman, Deborah Platt Majoras, waddled up to the private industry trough when she was still at the FTC as well—and other commissioners joined her. Google hosted her, William Kovacic and Jon Leibowitz at a junket at the five star St. Regis resort in Aspen, Colorado. All three later voted to approve Google's controversial $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick. Majoras went an extra mile to bat for the company, sloughing off public criticism that her husband was a partner in a law firm handling DoubleClick's antitrust business (!) and that she thus had a conflict of interest.
Will Facebook be rewarding the FTC's current "light touch" with junkets and cush new jobs? The person to ask about that would be the Facebook's Washington lobbyist Timothy Muris. He knows very, very well how the public sector/private sector revolving door works. He used to be chairman of the FTC, after all. Not long ago, actually.
[Photos via Getty]