Facebook accused of failing to cooperate in California privacy probe

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wants Facebook to hand over documents.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Queenie Wong
2 min read

Facebook is being investigated by California for alleged privacy mishaps. 

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Wednesday that Facebook has failed to cooperate in a state investigation into the social network's privacy and business practices, prompting his office to take legal action against the company.

The move illustrates how tensions between the government and the world's largest social network have been heating up amid accusations that it's failed to protect the privacy of its nearly 2.5 billion users. It's also the first time Becerra has publicly acknowledged the state is investigating Facebook. 

Becerra said in a press conference that since spring 2018 the state has been looking into allegations that Facebook violated California law and whether the company deceived users and misrepresented its privacy practices. 

The probe started after revelations surfaced that UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested the Facebook data of up to 87 million users without their permission. 

"Those are serious allegations. When you consider the personal information that we all supply to Facebook, every single day," Becerra said during the press conference. "Facebook knows some of the most intimate details of our lives."

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In a petition filed in the San Francisco Superior Court, the attorney general alleges that Facebook refused to comply with a subpoena and requests for documents including correspondence such as e-mails and text messages involving Facebook executives. 

Over 18 months, the state has asked the company to hand over dozens of documents but Facebook didn't provide answers to the inquiry or refused to produce the materials, according to the court filing.

The company took roughly a year to search for and hand over documents after the attorney general served Facebook with a subpoena in June 2018. This year, the AG served Facebook with a second subpoena, requesting more documents and information, but the state hasn't been satisfied with the company's response. 

The petition reveals what information the AG is trying to get from Facebook. The state is trying to find out, among other things, the number of people who use Facebook in California and how often they activate their privacy settings, what third parties had access to user data and how the company enforces its developer policies. It's also trying to find out if Facebook executives have talked about auditing developer access to Facebook user data, the ties between ad spending and data access, privacy-related news stories and new privacy features. 

Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment. 

California isn't the only state looking into Facebook's alleged privacy mishaps. In April, the New York attorney general's office said it was investigating the social network for harvesting the email contacts of about 1.5 million users without their consent. The Massachusetts attorney general is also investigating Facebook. 

In July, the Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook with a record-breaking $5 billion fine for its alleged privacy mishaps. 

Originally published Nov. 6, 11:39 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:25 p.m. PT: Includes more information from petition and background