While congressional committees were lambasting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his service’s role in sharing misinformation ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and 47 of his fellow state attorneys general have been investigating whether Facebook and other tech giants have amassed too much market power, Becerra remained on the sidelines.
It was a curious choice for the top law enforcer in the country’s top tech hub, and now it’s ending. On Wednesday, Becerra filed a court petition against Facebook. He accused the company of failing to cooperate with the privacy investigation he’s been conducting into the company’s practices for the past 18 months.
“The California Department of Justice … issued investigative subpoenas against Facebook starting back in June 2018 to examine the company’s actions and business practices and any violations of user privacy,” said Becerra in a statement. “The responses we have received to date are patently inadequate.”
In June 2018, Becerra’s office requested documents related to the company’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced political consulting firm that harvested Facebook data to allegedly conduct disinformation campaigns.
It’s accusing Facebook of dragging its feet on that subpoena for more than a year, and of providing an insufficient response to a June 2019 subpoena Becerra served requesting information into claims of user privacy breaches.
The state has requested email communications between Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer. In the court filing, Becerra says Facebook has declined to provide them. (Facebook says that it has cooperated with Becerra’s investigation and has shared hundreds of thousands of documents with his office.)
This is the first time Becerra’s office has publicly acknowledged the investigation. He has a long-standing practice of remaining reticent about high-profile investigations, even to the point of declining to acknowledge their existence.
It’s an open question whether this practice is helpful in terms of public transparency, but it certainly suggests a high level of frustration on Becerra’s part about the response he’s getting from Facebook about its user privacy practices.
The question that follows from Wednesday’s announcement is whether Becerra has decided to join the antitrust investigations into the company as well.
If Becerra does join the antitrust investigation, his participation would dramatically increase both its visibility and its vitality. His office has more resources than most state attorneys general. Becerra is also responsible for enforcing the California Consumer Privacy Act, a relatively new law that may be the nation’s most comprehensive set of regulations around data privacy.
In other words, Becerra may have substantial leverage to steer the course of one of the country’s most important political issues — right in time for a critical presidential election.
Now it’s just a matter of whether he chooses to use it.
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