The US government will levy a staggering $5 billion fine against Facebook for violating its users’ privacy, stemming from the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Facebook investors are celebrating.
Wall Street pushed the value of Facebook shares up slightly, to nearly $205, after the news of the upcoming Federal Trade Commission penalty surfaced this afternoon, via the Wall Street Journal. Another way of putting it: Facebook investors were most optimistic about the company a year ago, when they thought its shares were worth $210. But they feel very good about it now, too.
The most obvious reason for the disconnect is that Facebook had told investors it expected to pay a fine of up to $5 billion, and the company had set aside $3 billion to pay for the fine this spring.
Then there’s the fact that while $5 billion is a very large number, and a giant one for an FTC fine — the next-largest fine it has aimed against a Silicon Valley company was a $23 million slap-on-the-wrist for Google, in 2012 — it is a very doable number for Facebook.
The company booked profits of $22.1 billion last year. This year, even after accounting for the fine, analysts think it will earn more than $19 billion. And by 2021, RBC analyst Mark Mahaney estimates, Facebook should be earning more than $35 billion a year.
But the biggest cause for optimism — from Wall Street’s perspective — is that the federal government doesn’t appear to be moving toward any kind of regulation that would meaningfully change the way Facebook runs its business, which depends on turning detailed information about its users into targeted advertising.
From the New York Times: “In addition to the fine, Facebook agreed to more comprehensive oversight of how it handles user data, according to [sources]. But none of the conditions in the settlement will restrict Facebook’s ability to collect and share data with third parties.”
That is: Facebook will need to put more lawyers and other compliance experts to work once the new FTC rules are official, but Facebook can hire lots of compliance experts and lawyers. Facebook’s advertising machine, which pays for them, will be running full steam ahead.
It’s still possible that we’ll see bigger repercussions from the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that was able to mine data about tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent. Facebook will continue to face scrutiny outside of America. And in the US, it is receiving recurring criticism from politicians across the political spectrum: Thursday, for instance, both President Donald Trump and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell attacked Facebook’s plan to create its own digital currency.
And Friday, after the news of the FTC fine broke, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said a financial penalty wasn’t nearly enough: “Given Facebook’s repeated privacy violations, it is clear that fundamental structural reforms are required. With the FTC either unable or unwilling to put in place reasonable guardrails to ensure that user privacy and data are protected, it’s time for Congress to act.”
Facebook itself has said it welcomes additional regulation (which, again, it is in a position to handle given its enormous resources). And the company has also said it is working to reorient itself to focus on private messaging between its users — a move it never tied directly to Cambridge Analytica and other privacy scandals that have dogged it, but we can connect the dots ourselves.
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