The Irish Times view on Facebook’s troubles: logging off

The social network is facing fearsome legal and commercial threats

Half of US teens use Facebook today, but 94 per cent used it back in 2012, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Half of US teens use Facebook today, but 94 per cent used it back in 2012, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

Facebook’s recent upbeat financial results – subscriber numbers, revenue and profits are up – might suggest the social media giant has successfully ridden out the storm of criticism over its data gathering and breaches, its approach to privacy, its fake news management and failure to spot dubious political ads.

But a closer look indicates the company still has plenty to worry about. While users have grown, the network struggles to win or retain the younger users who are particularly attractive to advertisers. Half of US teens use Facebook today, but 94 per cent used it back in 2012, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey.

The company also faces significant international investigations into its operations. A roster of top US regulatory and enforcement agencies have reportedly been examining Facebook’s activities for months now, including the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The Washington Post says the FTC is concluding its investigation and preparing to impose a record-setting fine. Plus, at least six state attorneys general are also looking into how Facebook handles user data, while three US senators published a letter this week asking Facebook to explain an exploitative research app that targeted teens and captured precise details on their mobile use.

The Irish Data Protection Commissioner also has several ongoing Facebook investigations. The EU has suggested its antitrust arm may take a closer look at the company. But Germany dealt the sharpest blow this week when its antitrust authority blocked Facebook from tracking its users’ activities elsewhere on the web, and from sharing data between Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram (which Facebook also owns and wishes to integrate). Unlike one-off fines, this poses a fearsome threat to Facebook (and other data gathering businesses) because it significantly hobbles its entire, ad-based business model. If adopted at EU level, internet users would gain sweeping, meaningful privacy protections.

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