In June 2023, Silicon Valley gave the world yet another sign that the apocalypse is nigh. Two tech bro billionaires began challenging each other to fight a cage match.
Thus far, the world has been spared the dubious sight of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk grappling in the Colosseum. At least Zuck seems like he’s ready to spar with a serious competitor, billionaire or not.
Unfortunately, the battle-hungry CEO can’t seem to put his company in order. That’s why we’re updating The Facebook Timeline of Scandal and Strife with shocking privacy violations, outrageous failures to protect children, and jaw-dropping ways that Meta profits from illegal activities.
In our last update, the CreativeFuture Big Tech Fine Tracker (patent pending) reached a total of $1,416,000,000. But Meta keeps running up the score!
The EU Data Protection Board has fined Meta $1.3 BILLION for transmitting personal data from member countries overseas, which violates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Claiming that the data transfers were necessary, a Meta spokesperson faulted US and EU governments for failing to complete a transatlantic privacy agreement. Unimpressed by the excuses, the EU regulator said Meta’s violations were “systematic, repetitive and continuous.” Accordingly, the Data Protection Board assessed its highest fine to date, more than doubling Meta’s total liabilities to date under the GDPR. When our Fine Tracker registered the drastic increase, it shuddered and sparked. Miraculously, it has not exploded … yet.
Fine Tracker Total: $2,716,000,000
In separate studies, journalists and researchers showed that Instagram’s recommendation algorithms support massive pedophilia rings. Hundreds of accounts advertising child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) offered for sale made-to-order images or arranged in-person encounters. These accounts identified themselves with easily searchable hashtags like #preteensex, repurposed emojis like cheese pizza (alliterative shorthand for child pornography), and thinly veiled phrases that expressed minors’ ages, such as “on chapter 14.” Following even one CSAM account caused Instagram to recommend many, many more CSAM pages. The problems were measurably worse on Instagram than on similar platforms. It seems to be Meta’s strategy – make bad problems worse.
Although popular financial advisor Martin Lewis never does endorsements, Facebook can’t seem to pull down a deepfake video of Lewis promoting a scam. Lewis is furious. He asked Meta years ago to prevent scammers from misusing celebrity likenesses. He settled a UK defamation lawsuit in 2019 when Facebook promised to crack down on such abuse. Unfortunately, as Lewis observed, the internet remains “an absolute wild west.” When encountering scam ads, consumers should remember that “one of the Big Tech firms is being paid to promote that advert,” Lewis said. The emphasis was his, so we didn’t have to add it.
Australia’s consumer protection authority has fined two Meta subsidiaries a total of $13.5 million for misleading statements about Onavo Protect, a free VPN app that Facebook launched after purchasing Onavo in 2013. While Facebook advertised Onavo Protect as a tool for improving online privacy, the app actually made much more personal data available to Facebook itself. Facebook exploited this knowledge to identify competitive threats so that they could be neutralized, potentially through timely acquisitions. Meta denies that it intended to deceive consumers. We have one piece of advice for Meta: shut up and pay!
Fine Tracker Total: $2,729,500,000
In retaliation for Canada’s Online News Act, which passed despite Meta’s strenuous objections, Meta has stopped Facebook and Instagram users from viewing news media or links within Canada. The Act, which has not yet taken effect, will require social media platforms to license news content from its owners for fair rates. Instead of agreeing to share ad revenue with the publishers whose creativity Meta profits from, the company decided to strangle flows of reliable information. The consequences have been serious during raging Canadian wildfires. Many residents of rural areas, such as the Northwest Territories, depended on Facebook to read and exchange important news. Meta opted to protect its profits while homes burned.
Instagram does not use even the most basic methods to enforce policies against ads for counterfeit bills, drugs, firearms, hacked login credentials, or stolen credit cards. That’s the conclusion of Jason Koebler, former editor-in-chief at Vice’s Motherboard. As Koebler found, whether Instagram advertisers push stolen Netflix passwords or meth by the kilo, they generally direct marks or buyers to the messaging app Telegram. Koebler was able to surface numerous prohibited ads simply by searching for “t.me,” which appears in Telegram links. Why does Meta do so little to vet advertisers? Because of profits, of course!
Meta has rejected the Oversight Board’s first-ever recommendation to suspend a country’s leader, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, from the platform. In June 2023, the Oversight Board advised Facebook to remove Hun Sen because he posted a video threatening political opponents with violence. Enraged, Hun Sen temporarily quit Facebook and considered banning it throughout Cambodia. While Facebook wondered what to do, Hun Sen installed his son as his successor. Now, Meta claims company policies call for removing only the original offensive video, not banning Hun Sen. Continuing a tradition of flouting the Oversight Board, Meta will appease oppressive leaders to retain access to a profitable market.
September 6, 2023 – Meta Must Pay up to $8.3 Million for Privacy Violations in Norway
A Norwegian court has upheld the decision of Datatilsynet, Norway’s digital privacy regulator, to fine Meta $93,200 per day for three months because Meta collected personal data and subjected users to targeted ads without obtaining consent, which is required under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Although Norway is not in the EU, it enforces the GDPR as a member of the European Economic Area. To account for Datatilsynet’s rolling penalty, the Fine Tracker will register another $8,388,000 ($93,200/day × 90 days). We’ll correct the total if Meta stops invading privacy before the three-month term ends. (Spoiler: it won’t.)
Fine Tracker Total: $2,737,888,000
September 7, 2023 – At Least 17 Million People Likely to Be Paid in Cambridge Analytica Settlement
A whopping 28 MILLION user claims were received by lawyers in Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica class-action legal settlement. “That’s the largest number of claims ever filed in a class action in the United States,” according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs. The claims need further review, but already, at least 17 million – well over 50% of the claims – appear to be valid. Since Meta agreed to the $725 million settlement in December 2022, it is already included in the Fine Tracker.
We were glad Facebook users were finally about to get paid, but later, we read that Meta didn’t bother to meet the Oct. 31 deadline. Now, lawyers for the plaintiffs are understandably asking for over $319,000 in interest on the late payment. We guess the $725 million got lost in Meta’s sofa cushions, since the company is worth over $900 BILLION.
Soon after Meta launched AI Stickers, an in-message tool that generates images from text prompts, users showed how readily it appears to violate policies against copyright infringement, harassment, and the glorification of terrorist acts. The earliest reported examples included Luigi gripping a rifle and Justin Trudeau baring his ass. Further examples included Elmo brandishing a knife, Sonic the Hedgehog sporting sparkly tits (we apologize for making you read that), and the World Trade Center going up in flames. As artist Pier-Olivier Desbiens wrote, “We really do live in the stupidest future imaginable.” We tend to agree, but things can always get worse, as Meta constantly demonstrates.
October 24, 2023 – Meta Accused of Harming Kids in 10 New Lawsuits from 42 Attorneys General
42 attorneys general are suing Zuck’s proverbial ass in federal, state, and Washington, D.C. courts for Meta’s harms to children and teenagers. In a press release on the lawsuits, New York Attorney General Letitia James said, “Meta has profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.” Key evidence comes from Meta’s internal documents, leaked to The Wall Street Journal by whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. In December 2023, New Mexico sued Meta for exposing children to sexual predators, which brought the number of lawsuits up to 11 and attorneys general up to 43. No amount of money can make up for children’s suffering, but we hope Meta’s leaders pay dearly for being such shitty human beings.
November 2, 2023 – Meta Knows Its Platforms Harm Kids, New Whistleblower Confirms
Another whistleblower, former Facebook employee Arturo Bejar, has come forward with damning evidence that Meta’s platforms are dangerous for children and teenagers. Bejar worked for Facebook from 2009-2015 and again from 2019-2021, when he consulted for Instagram’s Well-Being Team. Concerned about his teenage daughter’s experiences on Instagram, Bejar launched a survey called Bad Emotional Experience Feedback (BEEF). Its most outrageous finding? Over a quarter of teenagers under age 16 reported that they had experienced sexual harassment on Instagram.
In October 2021, on the same day that whistleblower Frances Haugen first testified before Congress, Bejar shared his findings with Zuck and other Facebook leaders. They chose to cover up the scandal, so Bejar began working with the attorneys general who sued Meta in October 2023. As Bejar explained during Congressional testimony on November 7, 2023, Meta rolls out safety features only as a charade. That’s why he has got BEEF with Meta – and so do we.
In complaints to the U.S. Department of Education and the Massachusetts Attorney General, misinformation scholar Joan Donovan claimed that Harvard University wrongfully fired her to appease Meta. You see, Donovan upset Facebook’s former Head of Communications and Policy, Elliot Schrage, by giving a talk on The Facebook Papers, which were leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen in October 2021. Soon after, Harvard Dean Doug Elmendorf began subjecting Donovan’s research to intense scrutiny; then, in August 2022, Elmendorf said Donovan’s position was being terminated. Her last day was August 31, 2023, even though her contract was supposed to continue through December 31, 2024.
If that doesn’t sound suspicious enough, then let us mention one tiny fact: Zuck’s nonprofit organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, gave Harvard $500 MILLION for AI research on December 7, 2021.
Check out the full complaint for more sordid details, such as the obvious non-coincidence that Elmendorf said Harvard would no longer support Donovan’s work FOUR DAYS after attending the wedding of his former advisee, Harvard alumna Sheryl Sandberg, who was still serving as Meta’s Chief Operating Officer.
The scandal unfortunately suggests that Meta has abused its wealth and influence to stifle free speech and undermine the public good. Who’d’ve thunk it, right?!
Zuck and Musk apparently won’t battle in the Colosseum, despoiling the UNESCO World Heritage Site to gratify their narcissism. Unfortunately, a ridiculous and destructive clash remains an apt metaphor for Big Tech’s impact on society.
As Shoshana Zuboff has written, Big Tech’s business model, which she calls surveillance capitalism, amounts to “a bloodless battle for power and profit as violent as any the world has seen.” Its victims are democratic norms, as well as people across the world.
In recent months, Meta has continued doing business as usual.
The spectacle of Zuck goading a rival isn’t a distraction from Meta’s harms.
It’s a reminder that Meta’s real opponent is … all of us.