Cambridge Analytica: Meta to pay $725m for settling class action lawsuit
File photo: Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing held in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal

In a major development in the Cambridge Analytica saga, Facebook parent Meta agreed to pay $725 million to settle a class action lawsuit.

The legal action was based on the argument that the social media giant had given third parties access to user data without their consent.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs called the proposed settlement the largest to ever be achieved in a US data privacy class action, and the most that Meta has ever paid to resolve a class-action lawsuit.

“This historic settlement will provide meaningful relief to the class in this complex and novel privacy case,” said Derek Loeser and Lesley Weaver, who are the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs.

Thursday’s settlement would resolve claims by Facebook users that the company had violated various federal and state laws by letting app developers and business partners harvest their personal data without their consent on a widespread basis. Their lawyers alleged that Facebook had misled them into thinking they could keep control over personal data, when in fact it had let thousands of preferred outsiders gain access.

However, the company had argued that its users had no legitimate privacy interest in information shared with friends on social media. US District Judge Vince Chhabria said this view was “so wrong”, and largely allowed the case to move forward in 2019.

The class action lawsuit was prompted in 2018 after Facebook disclosed that the information of 87 million users was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy firm linked to former President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The case was broadened to focus on Facebook’s overall data-sharing practices. Plaintiffs said Facebook “granted numerous third parties access to their Facebook content and information without their consent, and that Facebook failed to adequately monitor the third parties’ access to, and use of, that information,” according to the law firm behind the lawsuit.

Judges overseeing the case in the Northern District of California will now have to approve the settlement.

“We pursued a settlement as it’s in the best interest of our community and shareholders. Over the last three years we revamped our approach to privacy and implemented a comprehensive privacy programme,” a Meta spokesperson said as the company did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Cambridge Analytica

The Cambridge Analytica scandal prompted global outrage and a flurry of regulators worldwide to scrutinize Facebook’s data practices.

The now-defunct Cambridge Analytica had gained access to Facebook users’ personal information for the purposes of voter profiling and targeting while working for Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign in 2016. The company obtained that information without users’ consent from a researcher who had been allowed by Facebook to deploy an app that harvested data from millions of users.

Meanwhile, the scandal fuelled government investigations into the social media platform’s privacy practices, as well as lawsuits and a high-profile US congressional hearing, where Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by lawmakers.

After the revelations, the US Federal Trade Commission opened a probe into Facebook over concerns that the social media firm had violated the terms of a previous agreement with the agency, which required it to give users clear notifications when their data was being shared with third parties.

Facebook in 2019 agreed to a record $5 billion settlement with the FTC. Facebook also agreed to pay $100 million to settle a case around the same time with the US Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations the company made misleading disclosures about the risk of misuse of user data.

Cambridge Analytica, which shut down after the allegations in 2018, was controversial because the data it harvested from Facebook was used to inform political campaigns.

In 2018, Britain’s Channel 4 News filmed Cambridge Analytica executives suggesting that the firm would use sex workers, bribes, ex-spies and fake news to help candidates win votes around the world.

Since the scandal, Facebook changed its name to Meta to reflect its growing ambitions to become a leader in the metaverse, a term used to refer to virtual worlds. Facebook, still one of the world’s biggest social media firms, is run by Meta.

But Facebook has seen a slowdown in growth due to a slowing in the advertising market, changes to Apple’s iOS privacy rules and rising competition from TikTok.

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