DC attorney general wants to hold Mark Zuckerberg personally responsible for Cambridge Analytica scandal

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With an image of himself on a screen in the background, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC.
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is now listed as a defendant in a complaint over the Cambridge Analytica scandal that District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine first brought against Facebook in 2018, the regulator’s office announced Wednesday.

It marks the first time that a U.S. regulator has named Zuckerberg in a complaint, according to Racine’s office. If Zuckerberg and Facebook are found in violation of the law, they could be made to pay civil penalties, attorneys fees and restitution or damages to victims.

D.C.’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, under which Racine brought the original complaint, makes individuals liable for company violations of the law if they knew about them at the time. Racine said in a statement that evidence collected in the past two years made “clear Mr. Zuckerberg knowingly and actively participated in each decision that led to Cambridge Analytica’s mass collection of Facebook user data, and Facebook’s misrepresentations to users about how secure their data was.”

Racine added that Zuckerberg helped mislead the public and the government about Facebook’s role in the scandal.

“These allegations are as meritless today as they were more than three years ago, when the District filed its complaint,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement. “We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously and focus on the facts.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal made waves in March 2018 when The New York Times and The Guardian published articles revealing that data firm Cambridge Analytica harvested information from 50 million Facebook profiles. Facebook later said data on as many as 87 million people were improperly shared with the company.

The data firm was able to access Facebook user information because of the way the platform was designed. At the time, Facebook allowed third party access to many features. The scandal raised concerns about how Cambridge Analytica may have used the information it collected to target U.S. users ahead of the 2016 election.

Cambridge Analytica was connected to key figures in former President Donald Trump’s orbit during the 2016 election. It was funded by the conservative Mercer family, which was one of Trump’s biggest supporters at the time. And Trump’s campaign boss and eventual White House advisor Steve Bannon helped Cambridge Analytica get off the ground. The firm had used data it collected in part to target ads for Trump’s election bid.

Racine, a Democrat, has also actively investigated Trump and his associates on unrelated matters, like their spending on the inauguration.

In the amended complaint, Racine charges that Facebook’s 2010 decision to open up its platform to third parties, which he claims was Zuckerberg’s idea, helped open up a collection of user data that developers could access through a “side door.”

“Zuckerberg was personally aware of the risks that sharing consumer data with apps posed, but actively disregarded those risks because sharing data was otherwise beneficial and lucrative to Facebook’s business model and Platform growth,” the complaint alleges.

Though many of the new claims added to the lawsuit are redacted due to a protective order, the sections available to the public allege Zuckerberg was deeply involved in Facebook operations to the point of micromanaging low-level employees about how the platform should run. He still owns well over half of the voting shares in the company, giving him outsized control over the business.

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