The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun a probe into Facebook, spurred by internal documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen, over whether the social media giant violated a record-breaking $5 billion settlement it agreed to with the agency in 2019 over user privacy, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
The internal research revealed by Haugen found evidence that Facebook knew Instagram was harmful to some of its teenage users, failed to take steps to combat COVID-19 misinformation, and was not doing enough to address cartels and traffickers using the platform.
Facebook said in a statement to the Journal that it is "always ready to answer regulators' questions and will continue to cooperate with government inquiries."
The company has previously said that many of the documents Haugen released have been misinterpreted and that Facebook has "invested heavily in people and technology to keep our platform safe."
After the disclosure of the documents by Haugen, three senators earlier this month urged the FTC to ensure that tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and TikTok abide by rules protecting children and teenagers online, Business Insider reported.
Haugen recently testified to lawmakers in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom about her tenure on Facebook's civic integrity team and has also filed official whistleblower complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In addition, another senator, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, said "the FTC should be really angry if Facebook concealed this material from them as it did from us in the Congress and the public," the Journal reported.
One topic likely being looked at in the FTC probe is whether Facebook had a legal duty to warn users about the risks revealed by internal research findings, said former FTC Chairman William Kovacic, currently a George Washington University law professor, who explained that it could constitute a deceptive trade practice if Facebook failed to do so.
However, David Vladeck, a former head of the FTC’s consumer-protection bureau, told the Journal that any case may be difficult to prove, stressing that "you have to take into account Facebook’s denial that its research really shows harm, and [its position] that the whistleblower has misstated or misrepresented the research."
Facebook’s 2019 settlement with the FTC came after concerns emerged that millions of its users’ information had been improperly shared with a political data-analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, with the agency demanding that Facebook tighten its privacy and data-security protections.
That settlement exonerated Facebook and its senior officials of any other consumer-protection violations known to the FTC at the time.
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