Washington DC takes Zuckerberg to court

The Attorney General for the District of Columbia has filed a lawsuit against Facebook on the grounds of failing to protect user’s privacy and enabling one of the biggest digital scandals to date.

It was only going to be a matter of time before one of the Attorney Generals took the opportunity to take Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies to court, the big question which remains is how many of them will do so. The Cambridge Analytica scandal might be old news in the eyes of the consumer nowadays, but the lawyers aren’t forgetting about it. Blood has been smelt and Washington DC is going to have the first bite.

“Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and deceived them about who had access to their data and how it was used,” said Attorney General Karl Racine.

“Facebook put users at risk of manipulation by allowing companies like Cambridge Analytica and other third-party applications to collect personal data without users’ permission. Today’s lawsuit is about making Facebook live up to its promise to protect its users’ privacy.”

The lawsuit itself relates back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, focusing on Facebook’s inability to meet expectations and commitments when it comes to data protection and privacy, but also the firm’s role in allowing the 2016 Presidential Election to be manipulated. It’s the permission to use data, or lack thereof, which is the big issue here. Cambridge Analytica harvested the data and sold it onto a political consulting firm, none of which it was entitled to do.

This is perhaps one of the biggest grey areas of the digital economy as while technology firms have streamed ahead in how data can be commercialised, rule makers have struggled to keep pace. Firms like Facebook has taken advantage of this regulatory void but cases like this will aim to hold them accountable retrospectively.

This is one of the most difficult things about innovation. Because these firms are playing with new ideas for the first time there is no precedent to where the line between right and wrong should be. In most cases, this would be an effective defence, as while most governments will of course want to protect citizens, they will also want to encourage innovation and exploration. In this case however, Facebook might not be able to lean on this idea.

Recent documents released by the UK government demonstrate not only that Facebook was aware there might unethical and illegal aspects to these practises, but that this knowledge went from the bottom to the top of the organization. The internal emails, which were secured by Six4Three during its own lawsuit against Facebook, paint a very deceptive and nefarious picture of the firm, with no regard to the opinion or privacy of the user.

Facebook is in a hole right now, which seems to be getting deeper and deeper. While it cannot shake off the Cambridge Analytica scandal, new controversies are being thrown at the platform, including the most recent claim. Rumbling through the world as we speak are claims Facebook granted certain technology companies, such as Netflix and Spotify, access to user’s private messages.

Facebook will of course end up in court and considering it has admitted wrong-doing on several occasions, there will be heavy punishments laid out. One of the big questions which remain is how many of the Attorney Generals across the US will bring their own lawsuit forward.

New York wades in to the T-Mobile/Sprint debate

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood could prove to be another hurdle for T-Mobile and Sprint to overcome in their headache-inducing merger.

The problem for the pair is there seem to be a lot more objections surrounding the tie-up than there has been support. After T-Mobile CEO John Legere seemingly got little response from his appeal to MVNOs to support the transaction, the wild-eyed leader has opened up to opinions from staff; a dangerous move considering some would certainly be under threat of redundancy.

Perhaps what the duo didn’t need are objections from the New York Attorney General Office over fears the consumer might get screwed. According to the New York Post, the objection is relatively simple. T-Mobile runs a prepaid service called MetroPCS, while Sprint has Boost and Virgin Mobile. Bringing all three into the same business could lead to one or more being scrapped, reducing competition. Secondly, all three are incredibly aggressive on pricing, but again, bringing all three into the same business could end this trend of undercutting, and an increase in price. The New Yorkers are concerned tariffs could become too expensive for some.

While objections from a few lawyers might not be the worst thing in the world for T-Mobile and Sprint, it seems there is a queue forming. In fact, the FCC released a notice last week which stated the Attorney General Offices of Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have all requested information to assist their own investigations into the merger. The lawyers are lurking, and the more who gather around the fire, the less pleasing the situation appears for T-Mobile and Sprint.

This of course might mean nothing. All major parties in the US are perfectly entitled to do their own due diligence surrounding the deal as transitioning from a market with four major telcos down to three is a massive move. Considering there will be regions across the country where this transaction effectively creates a communications monopoly, every chance to scrutinise the deal should be taken.

As it stands, the self-appointed shot-clock on approving the deal at the FCC is on hold. This again is simply down to the magnitude and the potentially significant consequences of the deal, and should not be surprising at all, but the longer it stands still, we suspect the more nervous executives will become. Mergers of this nature have already been shot down in the US, and this deal does seem to be hanging in the balance.

Net neutrality refuses to die; is it some form of genetically-modified super-cat?

With a coalition of 23 Attorney Generals (AGs) asking Federal judges to reinstate net neutrality rules, you have to wonder what experiments have been conducted on net neutrality; how many lives does it actually have?

Led by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, the coalition has filed a brief with United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to block the FCC’s rollback of net neutrality, which the AGs have deemed illegal. The brief is just another chapter in the saga of net neutrality, which despite the best efforts from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, refuses to disappear from the regulatory landscape.

“A free and open internet is critical to New York – and to our democracy,” said Underwood. “By repealing net neutrality, the FCC is allowing internet service providers to put their profits before consumers while controlling what we see, do, and say online.

“As we detail in our brief filed today, the rollback of net neutrality will have a devastating impact on millions of New Yorkers and Americans across the country, putting them at risk of abusive practices while undermining state and local regulation of the broadband industry. We’ll continue to fight to protect consumers’ right to a free and open internet.”

Aside from Underwood representing New York, AGs from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia, are providing the resistance to Pai.

The brief itself focuses on two areas. Firstly, the FCC’s order is arbitrary and capricious because it exposes the consumer to potential abuses from communications providers. And secondly, the AGs have deemed the FCC’s mission to undermine state regulations as illegal. While protecting the consumer is common rhetoric for this battle, the state versus federal jurisdiction fight is starting to emerge again.

The brief also seems to ask the Court of Appeals to apply some logic to the situation. Why should such a drastic reversal in regulation be allowed?

“For more than fifteen years, the Federal Communications Commission has agreed that an open Internet free from blocking, throttling, or other interference by service providers is critical to ensure that all Americans have access to the advanced telecommunications services that have become essential for daily life,” the brief states. “The recent Order represents a dramatic and unjustified departure from this long-standing commitment.”

While net neutrality has been officially banned from the rule books, the resistance to change is on-going. Pai is trying to remove every footnote and possible means a Democrat government could use to reinstate the rules, most recently he is trying to reverse the decision to classify telcos as common utilities, supporters are not making it easy. That said, the resistance could use a win pretty sharpish.

The AGs, internet players, privacy advocates and general busybodies do seem to be making life difficult for Pai, but the momentum is most certainly with FCC plans to eradicate net neutrality. The resistance is proving to be nothing more than an irritation at the moment, though a win in the courts would certainly provide genuine progress. Unfortunately, that win is yet to appear. Hopefully this brief will kickstart some action.