Facebook is negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over a fine to settle the agency’s investigation into their mishandling of user data, according to the Washington Post.
Though still under negotiation, it’s expected to be the largest fine ever issued by the FTC against a technology company.
The investigation is focused on data from 87 million Facebook users that was improperly shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. That incident, as well as other privacy mishaps, may have broken a 2011 agreement with the FTC to safeguard user privacy on the platform, critics say.
A multi-billion-dollar fine is anticipated, though the exact amount is still under discussion.
Such a fine “would indicate the FTC is now prepared to enforce its consent orders,” according to executive director of the consumer group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Marc Rotenberg.
“It is an open question at this moment in time whether the Federal Trade Commission is an effective privacy agency, and it is also an open question as to whether the FTC is willing to use its current authority to safeguard consumer privacy in the United States.”
Facebook has also faced scrutiny over other privacy lapses, which are also factors in the FTC’s investigation, as well as from lawmakers over allowing hate speech and misinformation to spread on the platform.
In the 2011 agreement, Facebook agreed to clearly notify users before sharing their data with a third party and be transparent with users about privacy practices. Depending on the number of times these rules were violated, the FTC could issue heavy fines.
Facebook could potentially negotiate a fine and agree to update its privacy practices, though such a settlement would need a judge’s approval.
The company could also opt to fight the fine in court, arguing that the incidents did not constitute violations of the 2011 agreement. Observers believe both sides could suffer from such an outcome, with Facebook’s executives forced to publicly defend its privacy lapses and the agency facing a highly visible test of its authority over increasingly-powerful tech companies.
But since Facebook has already been losing users over its privacy practices, the company will almost certainly want to avoid the public legal battle. They are already engaged in other legal fights, including in the UK, over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“We have been working with the FTC and will continue to work with the FTC,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
Last month, a letter from EPIC and other consumer groups to the FTC called for tough action against the social media giant:
“Facebook has violated the  consent order on numerous occasions, involving the personal data of millions, possibly billions, of users of its services…we urge the Commission to either restore the right of Facebook users to have meaningful input into the company’s decisions or to recommend to Congress that Facebook be regulated as a public utility.”