California is investigating Facebook Inc. FB -1.43% ’s privacy practices, the state’s attorney general revealed Wednesday in a lawsuit that accuses the Silicon Valley tech giant of failing to adequately comply with information requests.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he has asked the San Francisco Superior Court to force Facebook to comply with investigators’ subpoenas, the latest of which were issued in June.
“The responses we have received to date are patently inadequate,” he said at a press conference.
California prosecutors began probing Facebook in 2018, shortly after the company said data from as many as 87 million of its users may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that worked on President Trump’s 2016 campaign and has since shut down. Facebook says it has complied with requests from California authorities.
As it sought to settle a privacy investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook uncovered emails that appeared to connect Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to potentially problematic privacy practices at the company, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. Facebook’s unearthing of the emails while it responded to the federal probe raised concerns internally that they would harm the company, at least from a public-relations standpoint.
The emails suggest Mr. Zuckerberg and other senior executives didn’t make compliance with an existing FTC consent decree a priority, the Journal reported. The potential impact of the internal emails was a factor in the tech giant’s desire to reach a speedy settlement with the FTC.
In July, the FTC approved a roughly $5 billion settlement with Facebook related to privacy missteps by the company.
California said in its legal filing that it doesn’t believe Facebook has searched the emails of either Mr. Zuckerberg or Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in response to the subpoena.
“We have cooperated extensively with the state of California’s investigation,” Facebook Vice President of State and Local Policy Will Castleberry said Wednesday. “To date, we have provided thousands of pages of written responses and hundreds of thousands of documents.”
Mr. Becerra’s office said it issued a first round of subpoenas to Facebook on June 4, 2018, including about the company’s ties to Cambridge Analytica. It waited more than a year for responses from the social-media giant, the attorney general’s office said.
A second round of information requests was issued this past June. In that case, the company didn’t answer 19 of 27 sets of written questions, gave only partial responses on six others and didn’t provide any documents to six document requests, the attorney general’s office said.
California’s investigation focuses on Facebook’s compliance with state privacy and consumer protection laws, the lawsuit says, including whether Facebook allowed its business partners to access user data even when those users had opted out of such sharing, as well as the company’s technical explanations about how its software allowed outside entities to access user data.
Facebook and other tech giants face increasing pressure from regulators for some of their actions. A bipartisan group of more than 40 state attorneys general in September formally launched an investigation into Facebook and Alphabet Inc. ’s Google to determine whether the companies sought to stifle competition, potentially harming consumers.
Federal officials are also examining whether other big tech companies, including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., exert too much power over competitors. Google has said it is complying with the probe. Apple and Amazon have generally said they don’t engage in anticompetitive behavior.
While California, where Facebook is based, hasn’t been involved in the effort by state attorneys general, Mr. Becerra hasn’t officially ruled out the state’s involvement.
California is set to debut a sweeping privacy law in January. The law intends to give residents unprecedented rights to know what data businesses collect about them. Mr. Becerra in October released a draft of regulations to enforce the new law.
As Facebook aims to comply with the FTC consent decree, it has been trying to stamp out areas where user data is improperly shared. In a blog post Tuesday, Facebook said it found instances where app developers had more access to user data than intended. It has asked the developers to delete the information they shouldn’t have been able to access, the company said.
“The new framework under our agreement with the FTC means more accountability and transparency into how we build and maintain products,” Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director for platform partnerships, said in the blog post. “As we continue to work through this process we expect to find more examples of where we can improve, either through our products or changing how data is accessed.”
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com
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