Facebook owner to settle class-action suit over Cambridge

Meta, the Facebook owner, will pay out $725m (£600m) to plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit alleging privacy violations related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company has said in a court filing.

The settlement will end a long-running dispute over the revelations that the political consultancy had accessed the data of tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent, and used it to target political adverts.

“This historic settlement will provide meaningful relief to the class in this complex and novel privacy case,” the lawyers leading the case, Derek Loeser and Lesley Weaver, said. They added in a court filing that the settlement “would be the largest data privacy or data breach class action settlement ever achieved in the United States”, 10% higher again than the next largest – also awarded against Facebook, for signing up users to facial recognition services without their consent.

In a statement, a Meta spokesperson said: “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. We look forward to continuing to build services people love and trust with privacy at the forefront.” The company did not admit to wrongdoing as part of the settlement, which still needs to be approved by a judge.

The case revolved around allegations that Facebook had broken state and federal laws by failing to prevent app developers harvesting user data on a widespread basis. Users were misled into believing that the company offered them control over their personal data, the lawsuit argued, when in fact “Facebook, despite its promises to restrict access, continued to allow a preferred list of app developers to access the information of users’ friends”.

Facebook’s defence centred on the claim that users could not expect absolute privacy for information they had already posted on the site with the knowledge that it would be shown to their friends. As a result, the company argued, the users had suffered no “tangible” harm.

That was rejected in 2019 by Judge Vince Chhabria, who said: “Facebook’s motion to dismiss is littered with assumptions about the degree to which social media users can reasonably expect their personal information and communications to remain private. Facebook’s view is so wrong.

“Sharing information with your social media friends does not categorically eliminate your privacy interest in that information.”

At the core of the case are the revelations around Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the data of tens of millions of Facebook users by partnering with a personality quiz operation and using the Facebook API to build extensive profiles on individuals’ behaviour and personalities. Facebook discovered the operation in 2015, but it was only revealed to the public in March 2018, when an Observer investigation uncovered the operation’s involvement in the US election.