Facebook to appeal £500,000 UK fine for role in Cambridge Analytica

22 Nov 2018

Facebook logo on smartphone. Image: Inkytape/Depositphotos

We have principles, claims Facebook.

Facebook is lodging an appeal against a record £500,000 fine levied by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The social network apparently disputes the penalty for its role in one of most reckless abuses of private data in history on a point of principle.

‘Their reasoning challenges some of the basic principles of how people should be allowed to share information online, with implications which go far beyond just Facebook’

Facebook is saying that because the regulator found no evidence that UK users’ personal data had been shared inappropriately, the £500,000 fine is unjustified.

The role of data in dangerous times

In one of the biggest data scandals in history, an app developed by academic Dr Aleksandr Kogan on behalf of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica targeted 300,000 people but went on to harvest the profiles of about 87m Facebook users around the world.

The data was then used to target political advertising that is believed to have influenced voting in tumultuous democratic events, including the 2016 Brexit decision for UK to leave the EU, and the US presidential election campaign that saw Donald Trump elected.

Last month, the ICO fined Facebook £500,000 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal for allowing third-party developers to access user information without sufficient consent.

The fine – the maximum the ICO could impose under pre-GDPR legislation – is just a drop in the ocean for Facebook, which brought in revenues of more than $40bn in 2017. Under the new regulatory system, Facebook would have faced a substantially greater fine of £1.2bn.

The ICO found that personal data of at least 1m UK users was exposed by Kogan’s app but said that it did not have any evidence that UK users’ social media data was shared with Cambridge Analytica. And this is the principle that Facebook is hinging its appeal upon.

“The ICO’s investigation stemmed from concerns that UK citizens’ data may have been impacted by Cambridge Analytica,” Facebook’s associate general counsel in Europe, Anna Benckert, said in a statement, “yet they now have confirmed that they have found no evidence to suggest that information of Facebook users in the UK was ever shared by Dr Kogan with Cambridge Analytica, or used by its affiliates in the Brexit referendum.

“Therefore, the core of the ICO’s argument no longer relates to the events involving Cambridge Analytica. Instead, their reasoning challenges some of the basic principles of how people should be allowed to share information online, with implications which go far beyond just Facebook, which is why we have chosen to appeal.

“For example, under the ICO’s theory, people should not be allowed to forward an email or message without having agreement from each person on the original thread. These are things done by millions of people every day on services across the internet, which is why we believe the ICO’s decision raises important questions of principle for everyone online, which should be considered by an impartial court based on all the relevant evidence.”

Facebook’s challenge to the ICO’s fine will be considered by an independent body known as a General Regulatory Chamber.

Facebook logo on smartphone. Image: Inkytape/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years