Judge Dismisses D.C.’s Privacy Lawsuit Against Meta

The News

A Superior Court judge on Thursday dismissed a privacy lawsuit against Meta by the District of Columbia, which had accused the company of deceiving consumers by improperly sharing their data with third parties, including the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

The decision was a rare victory for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, as it battles lawsuits filed by the federal government, states, foreign regulators and consumers in privacy, antitrust and consumer protection disputes.

In his opinion, Judge Maurice A. Ross of Superior Court for the District of Columbia said Facebook’s policies had clearly disclosed how third parties could obtain data “such that a reasonable consumer could not have been misled” under the district’s consumer protection law.

The district’s attorney general at the time, Karl Racine, filed the lawsuit in 2018 after revelations that Cambridge Analytica had obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users — including those in the District of Columbia — without their consent. Mr. Racine accused Facebook of violating the district’s law.

But Judge Ross said Facebook not only had adequately informed users of how data could be shared with third parties but had provided instructions on how to limit data sharing. He added that Facebook had taken adequate steps to investigate Cambridge Analytica and inform users after press reports about the activity emerged.

“While the district may disagree with Facebook’s approach to the situation, there is no legal basis that required Facebook to act differently,” Judge Ross said. “Facebook did not materially mislead consumers as to their response to Cambridge Analytica.”

A spokesman for the District of Columbia attorney general’s office, Gabriel Shoglow-Rubenstein, said in a statement, “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and are considering all of our options.”

Meta declined to comment.

Why It Matters: This was a rare win in a controversy that continues to dog Meta.

Meta faces legal challenges around the world. The company has grappled with scrutiny and criticism for its handling of disinformation, privacy and competition. Partly to shift Meta’s narrative, the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has been trying to turn its focus toward the so-called metaverse, which is a virtual reality space, and artificial intelligence.

The dismissal of the District of Columbia lawsuit stands out not only against that backdrop, but also because it is a rare win in one of Meta’s most lasting challenges: the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, which exposed how Facebook’s user data can leak and spread.

Lawmakers and regulators around the world have criticized Facebook’s handling of user data after the Cambridge Analytica issues surfaced. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for data privacy abuses related to the scandal. Last December, Meta agreed to a $750 million settlement to resolve a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of sharing data with third parties, including Cambridge Analytica. Last month, a Delaware judge rejected Facebook’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit brought by shareholders over Cambridge Analytica’s use of data.

Background: Cambridge Analytica revealed Facebook’s privacy issues.

In 2010, Facebook began a program called Open Graph, which gave developers access to the social network’s data. Thousands of companies and researchers took advantage of the program.

One of the researchers was Aleksandr Kogan, who in 2013 created a quiz app for Facebook users that collected data on users and their connections on Facebook for psychological profiling.

In 2018, news reports revealed that Mr. Kogan had given the Facebook data from as many as 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica, which used the information to build political profiles for voter targeting by campaigns. At the time, Facebook’s privacy practices and data use by other parties were not well understood. The Cambridge Analytica revelations showed how far Facebook user data could travel.