The Australian Information Commissioner has lodged proceedings against Facebook in the Federal Court, alleging the social media platform has committed serious and/or repeated interferences with privacy in contravention of Australian privacy law.
The Commissioner alleges that the personal information of Australian Facebook users was disclosed to the This is Your Digital Life app for a purpose other than the purpose for which the information was collected, in breach of the Privacy Act 1988.
The information was exposed to the risk of being disclosed to Cambridge Analytica and used for political profiling purposes, and to other third parties.
“All entities operating in Australia must be transparent and accountable in the way they handle personal information, in accordance with their obligations under Australian privacy law,” Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said.
“We consider the design of the Facebook platform meant that users were unable to exercise reasonable choice and control about how their personal information was disclosed.
“Facebook’s default settings facilitated the disclosure of personal information, including sensitive information, at the expense of privacy.
“We claim these actions left the personal data of around 311,127 Australian Facebook users exposed to be sold and used for purposes including political profiling, well outside users’ expectations.”
The statement of claim lodged in the Federal Court today alleges that, from March 2014 to May 2015, Facebook disclosed the personal information of Australian Facebook users to This Is Your Digital Life, in breach of Australian Privacy Principle 6. Most of those users did not install the app themselves, and their personal information was disclosed via their friends’ use of the app.
The statement of claim also alleges that Facebook did not take reasonable steps during this period to protect its users’ personal information from unauthorised disclosure, in breach of Australian Privacy Principle 11.
Commissioner Falk considers that these were systemic failures to comply with Australian privacy laws by one of the world’s largest technology companies.
Commenting on the move, advocacy group Responsible Technology Australia said the Information Commissioner’s legal action against Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows the need for tougher regulation and public oversight over the social media platforms.
According to executive director Chris Cooper, the move “… shows that Facebook and other social media platforms are not above the law when it comes to how they manage our data,” said of Responsible Technology Australia.
“When we sign up to social media platforms we lose control of our data and, as seen in the case of Cambridge Analytica, it can then be misused to manipulate us.
“Despite the many benefits of social media, we should also recognise it can and does cause harm to Australian society. This summer alone we have seen the proliferation of fake news about bushfires and COVID-19 impact directly on our communities – we are now realising we need greater transparency about how these platforms operate and use our data.
“Saying it’s the responsibility of the individual user to manage how their data is used is no longer good enough. Even if you try to opt out entirely, social media is pervasive and affects us all, which is why we need a systemic overhaul of how we regulate social media.
“This may mean beefing up the Information Commissioner’s powers, or introducing an entirely new and independent social media watchdog to ensure the platforms are acting within the public interest by adequately protecting our data, our privacy and our freedom of expression.
“Regulation should include giving users the ability to opt out of targeted advertising, and restricting granular advertising, which can be misused by bad actors to micro-target certain groups.
“Australia could also further bolster our privacy and data protections by following the European Union’s example and introducing a GDPR, which would require organisations to tell us what they do with our data. Or we could step up and lead the world by guaranteeing digital rights that give us complete control over our personal data.
“Tech giants have created society-changing entities that produce mega-profits as well as serious societal challenges. If they accept the profits, they should also accept responsibility for the impact of their technology, and the necessary oversight from society.
“We have regulation in all major fields – the financial sector, food safety, construction – but for some reason we have given the social media platforms that dictate how many of us get our news and information, a pass. This should be rectified.
“Social media isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but we are only just beginning to truly understand what impact it has on our society. Like all technologies it can be used as a tool or as a weapon. It’s up to governments to regulate new technologies to ensure they serve the public interest.”