(CN) — Meta Platforms, the parent of Facebook, has agreed to pay $725 million to settle claims by its users that the social-media behemoth illegally gave third parties, including political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, access to their private information.
The proposed settlement is the largest recovery ever achieved in a data-privacy class action, and it is the most Facebook has ever paid to resolve a private class action, attorneys for the users said in a request for preliminary approval filed late Thursday in San Francisco federal court.
“This historic settlement will provide meaningful relief to the class in this complex and novel privacy case," Derek Loeser and Lesley Weaver, the co-lead attorneys for the plaintiffs, said in a statement Friday. "We have reached this point only because our teams of lawyers and professionals have dedicated years of hard work to this case. We are also immensely thankful to the court and the mediators.”
If approved by the court, the settlement will resolve dozens of consolidated lawsuits that resulted from reports in March 2018 that Cambridge Analytica had harvested information from up to 87 million Facebook users. The case expanded to include broader data-sharing practices by Facebook, with allegations that the company had granted numerous third parties access to users' Facebook content without their consent and had failed to adequately monitor these third parties’ use of that information.
“We pursued a settlement as it’s in the best interest of our community and shareholders," a Meta spokesperson said in an email. "Over the last three years we revamped our approach to privacy and implemented a comprehensive privacy program. We look forward to continuing to build services people love and trust with privacy at the forefront.”
Facebook sought to get the case thrown out in 2019, but U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria rejected the company’s argument that people who share personal data on a social media website have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
“Facebook’s argument could not be more wrong,” Chhabria wrote in the 71-page ruling.
“When you share sensitive information with a limited audience (especially when you’ve made clear that you intend your audience to be limited), you retain privacy rights and can sue someone for violating them,” he wrote.
The most notorious breach of Facebook users' privacy involved Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct political consulting firm that used data collected from psychological profiles in various information warfare campaigns.
Former President Donald Trump enlisted the services of Cambridge Analytica during his 2016 presidential campaign and the architects of Brexit also used its services in the run-up to that decisive yet divisive vote.
The plaintiffs — all current and former Facebook users — claimed Cambridge Analytica was one of several to whom Facebook divulged their sensitive information to third parties without consent.
They claimed that in addition to publicly available information like names, birthdates and phone numbers, Facebook made their religious and political persuasions, videos they created or liked, photographs, relationship information and other sensitive information available to third-party vendors.
Facebook had argued users had no legitimate privacy interest because they willingly share their information through social media. Chhabria shot that argument down, saying the law firmly establishes an individuals’ right to privacy when sharing certain information with a limited audience.
Mark Zuckerberg, who's now at the head of the rebranded Meta parent company, in 2018 acknowledged mistakes were made, as an avalanche of criticism came down on Facebook over its handling of its users' private data.
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post at the time. “I've been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again.”
Zuckerberg acknowledged policies regarding third-party apps in 2013 likely contributed to a Cambridge University graduate student’s ability to mine data of millions of Facebook users and then sell it to an analytics company that used the information to sway opinions in the most pivotal political contests of the decade: the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, both in 2016.
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