Most people don't have £500,000 ($663,352) to spare. The UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) slapped Facebook with a fine for that amount this week, although for a company like Facebook this is just a pittance. While the ICO hasn't exactly ruined the firm's finances with this penalty, it represents the latest in a series of consequences for Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal that erupted this year.
The scandal centered on Cambridge Analytica's abuse of Facebook's wishy-washy data sharing rules for harvesting information from 50 million people. That data was then used by political organizations in the U.S. to help support their candidate of choice. This initial report blossomed into multiple complaints about how Facebook controls the user data gathered by other companies, how much data Facebook itself stores and more.
Now lawmakers around the world have opened investigations into Facebook's data practices. That's where the ICO comes in. The office is charged with protecting the privacy of UK citizens and it "concluded that Facebook contravened the law by failing to safeguard people’s information" and "found that the company failed to be transparent about how people’s data was harvested by others."
Those failings led to the ICO's plan to issue a £500,000 fine. That doesn't seem like much for companies whose revenues are measured in the billions, but it's the highest fine the ICO can issue under the UK's Data Protection Act 1998, which Facebook violated twice over. If the Cambridge Analytica incident happened closer to the present, it would've fallen under stricter data protection laws and resulted in higher fines.
But financial consequences aren't the point; they're merely a way to punish companies for their misbehavior. The Cambridge Analytica scandal isn't just about how much information companies gathered about Facebook users and their friends without their knowing--it's also about how this data can be used to influence very specific groups of people for political gain. UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said:
“We are at a crossroads. Trust and confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes risk being disrupted because the average voter has little idea of what is going on behind the scenes. ... New technologies that use data analytics to micro-target people give campaign groups the ability to connect with individual voters. But this cannot be at the expense of transparency, fairness and compliance with the law. ... Fines and prosecutions punish the bad actors, but my real goal is to effect change and restore trust and confidence in our democratic system."
Those concerns over how this data can affect democratic processes led the ICO to support numerous studies into the matter. One, Democracy Disrupted? Personal information and political influence, resulted from the office's 14-month-long investigation. Another, The Future of Political Campaigning, was commissioned by the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the DEMOS thinktank.
The ICO's continued interest in these matters shows that this is just the beginning. Never before have political groups had the ability to gather so much information about so many people and use that data in an effort to sway voters' political opinions. Consider the £500,000 fine more like the beginning of companies like Facebook's woes, not lawmakers' final solutions.