Regulatory penalty and data transfer suspension looms over Facebook

Emre Çitak
May 22, 2023

In a significant blow to Facebook, the social media giant is set to be fined a staggering €746m (£648m) by the Irish Data Protection Commission for its mishandling of user information. This impending penalty, expected to be officially confirmed soon, will mark the largest breach of the European Union's general data protection regulation (GDPR) to date, surpassing the previous record set by Amazon's €746m fine in 2021.

Alongside the financial repercussion, Facebook may also face the suspension of data transfers from its European users to the United States, pending the decision.

The Irish Data Protection Commission, serving as the lead privacy regulator for Facebook and its parent company Meta across the European Union, is at the helm of this momentous ruling. The decision carries weight not only in terms of the fine amount but also in its potential to halt data flows between Facebook's European users and the US.

Although the ruling may not be implemented immediately, Meta is likely to be granted a grace period to comply, which could extend the suspension of data transfers until autumn. It is expected that the company will exercise its right to appeal the decision, further prolonging the resolution process.

Facebook fined
Facebook is fined €746m due to mishandling of user information

Privacy concerns stemming from transatlantic data transfers

The ruling is a direct consequence of a legal challenge initiated by Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy campaigner, who raised concerns about the inadequate protection of European users' data when transferred across the Atlantic, particularly in light of the Edward Snowden revelations. The case has gained momentum, shedding light on the need for data privacy measures.

Should the fine and data transfer suspension be upheld, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, could face substantial challenges in operating their services within the European market. Meta's policy chief, Nick Clegg, emphasized the potential far-reaching impact of suspending data transfers based on standard contractual clauses (SCCs), which are widely used by Facebook and other businesses. Such a suspension could have profound consequences for businesses relying on SCCs and the online services that millions of individuals and enterprises depend on.

Change is essential

Some experts argue that a financial penalty alone, even one exceeding €746m, would be insufficient to induce meaningful change if Facebook fails to address the fundamental issues surrounding its data-reliant business model. Johnny Ryan, a senior at Irish Council for Civil Liberties and a prominent campaigner for stronger data protection, emphasized the need for substantial reform, stating that a billion-euro fine would be inconsequential for a company that generates much greater revenue through what he perceives as unethical practices.

This fine comes on the heels of a series of penalties imposed by the Irish Data Protection Commission on Meta since September 2021, totaling nearly €1bn. In addition to overseeing Facebook and its subsidiaries, the commission regulates other major technology platforms, including Apple, Google, and TikTok, whose European headquarters are based in Ireland. These regulatory actions highlight the growing scrutiny of data privacy practices and the importance of adhering to GDPR guidelines.

The impending fine adds to the challenges faced by Meta, which has been striving to diversify its offerings beyond social media platforms and expand into the metaverse through virtual reality programs. The company's significant investments in these endeavors, coupled with fierce competition from the likes of TikTok, have raised concerns among investors. In response, Meta recently embarked on a "year of efficiency" initiative, resulting in substantial workforce reductions.


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