Meta hit with €1.2B fine over data privacy rules
On Monday, Meta received a record-breaking fine of 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) and was instructed to halt the transfer of data obtained from Facebook users in Europe to the United States, The New York Times reports. This landmark ruling against the social media giant stems from its infringement of European Union data protection regulations. The penalty, announced by Ireland's Data Protection Commission, carries significant weight as one of the most significant consequences to date since the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) five years ago. Regulatory authorities highlighted Meta's non-compliance with a 2020 verdict from the highest court of the European Union, which deemed that data transferred across the Atlantic lacked adequate protection against surveillance activities conducted by American intelligence agencies.
The verdict announced on Monday specifically targets Facebook and does not encompass other social media platforms under Meta's ownership, such as Instagram and WhatsApp. Meta has expressed its intention to challenge the ruling through the appeals process, emphasizing that there will be no immediate disruption to Facebook's operations within the European Union.
Prior to the implementation of data partitioning for Facebook users in Europe, several steps need to be undertaken. This includes the segregation of various data types, ranging from photos and friend connections to direct messages and information utilized for targeted advertising. Meta has been granted a five-month grace period to achieve compliance, and the initiation of an appeal is expected to trigger a lengthy legal procedure.
Efforts are underway between European Union and United States officials to negotiate a new data-sharing agreement. The proposed pact aims to provide Meta with updated legal safeguards, ensuring the continued transfer of user data between the United States and Europe. A preliminary agreement was announced in the previous year.
The EU's recent ruling serves as a testament to the evolving landscape of data regulations, which are increasingly impacting the once seamless cross-border flow of information. Companies now face mounting pressure to maintain data within the country where it is collected, driven by data protection laws, national security measures, and other regulatory frameworks. Previously, data could freely traverse global data centers without significant impediments.
Meta's charges stem from official American policies that grant authorization for the interception of foreign communications, including electronic mail. In 2020, Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy activist, successfully challenged the validity of the Privacy Shield agreement between the United States and the European Union, thereby prohibiting the transfer of data between the two regions for corporations like Facebook. The European Court of Justice ruled that the potential surveillance of European citizens by American entities was unconstitutional, leading to the invalidation of the agreement.
In response to the recent ruling, Max Schrems issued a statement on Monday stating that unless U.S. surveillance laws undergo significant reforms, Meta will need to undertake substantial restructuring of its systems. According to Mr. Schrems, a potential solution lies in the adoption of a "federated social network" model. Under this framework, the majority of personal data would remain within the European Union, with only "necessary" transfers taking place, such as when a European user sends a direct message to someone in the United States. This approach aims to strike a balance between data protection and essential data exchanges across borders.
Meta, in response to the Monday ruling, expressed its belief that it was being unfairly targeted for data-sharing practices that are commonly employed by numerous companies.
In a joint statement, Nick Clegg, Meta's President of Global Affairs, and Jennifer Newstead, the Chief Legal Officer, conveyed their perspective on the matter:
“Without the ability to transfer data across borders, the internet risks being carved up into national and regional silos, restricting the global economy and leaving citizens in different countries unable to access many of the shared services we have come to rely on.”
The ruling, which stands as a record fine under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), was widely anticipated. Meta's Chief Financial Officer, Susan Li, had previously informed investors that approximately 10 percent of the company's global advertising revenue was derived from ads targeted at Facebook users in European Union (EU) countries. In 2022, Meta reported revenue of nearly $117 billion.
Meta, along with other companies, is pinning its hopes on a new data agreement between the United States and the European Union, aimed at replacing the invalidated agreement of 2020. Last year, President Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Union, outlined the framework of a deal in Brussels; however, the specific details are still being negotiated.
The ruling against Meta comes on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the GDPR. Despite being hailed as a leading data privacy law, many civil society organizations and privacy advocates argue that its potential has been undermined by a lack of robust enforcement.
Criticism has been particularly directed towards the section of the GDPR that assigns enforcement responsibilities to authorities in the country where a company's European Union headquarters are located. The focus has largely centered on Ireland, as it is home to regional offices of major tech companies including Meta, TikTok, Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft.
On Monday, Irish officials revealed that they had been overruled by a European Union board. In addition to the 1.2 billion euro fine, the board mandated that Meta must delete all customer data it had ever collected.
Meta has frequently faced enforcement actions under the GDPR. In January, the company was fined 390 million euros for compelling users to accept personalized advertising as a condition for using Facebook. In November, it received penalties totaling 265 million euros following a data breach. These cases highlight the regulatory actions taken against Meta in accordance with the GDPR.Advertisement