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Mar 22, 2019

Facebook fights for dismissal of D.C. privacy protection suit

The Facebook Inc. application is displayed for a photograph on an Apple Inc. iPhone in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. Facebook is struggling to respond to growing demands from Washington to explain how the personal data of millions of its users could be exploited by a consulting firm that helped Donald Trump win the presidency.

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Facebook Inc. asked a Washington judge to throw out a lawsuit by the District of Columbia accusing it of failing to protect users’ data, calling the suit a “broadside” against the company and saying the court lacks proper jurisdiction.

The political-consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used the data to target and influence voters on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign. District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine sued Facebook in December, accusing it of allowing a third party to gain access to the personal information of some 70 million Americans -- 340,000 of whom live in the capital -- in violation of D.C. consumer protection laws.

Earlier this month, his office filed documents it said show Facebook was aware of the breach months before it came to light.

The suit seeks a court order barring Facebook from continuing the practice, as well as unspecified monetary damages.

“Facebook believes that this case is not properly before this court,” defense attorney Joshua Lipshutz told D.C. Superior Court Judge Fern Saddler on Friday afternoon, adding that if she reread the complaint, she would “search in vain” for an allegation of company misconduct that would show the case belonged in her court.

At least three states are investigating the Menlo Park, California-based company’s user data-protection practices, as is a federal grand jury in New York. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook for its role in the Cambridge Analytica saga. On Thursday, the agency announced a broader probe of tech company data collection practices.

While Facebook has acknowledged the firestorm set off by last year’s Cambridge Analytica revelations, it attacked the Racine suit in court papers filed last month as an unwarranted “broadside” that duplicated litigation elsewhere and was lodged without a legitimate connection between the company and the district.

“This is the wrong case, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and it should be dismissed,” Facebook’s defense lawyers said then.

D.C. lawyers struck back, asserting that Facebook’s Washington-based employees played a lead role in responding to the uproar over how the company’s user data migrated to Cambridge Analytica through user-installed third-party apps.

“Nearly half of all D.C. residents are Facebook consumers, and the District’s complaint alleges that Facebook made unlawful misrepresentations and omissions to its vast D.C. consumer base in the course of monetizing their data into millions of dollars in advertising revenue,” according to papers filed by Racine’s office.

When the District included in its court filings documents it said support its claim that Facebook has more than enough contact with D.C. to warrant its court’s jurisdiction, the company asked Saddler to keep that information under seal.

The documents indicate that “Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s improper data-gathering practices months before news outlets reported on the issue,” Racine’s lawyers said in a March 18 filing.

Saddler said she plans to rule by the end of April.

On Thursday, Racine said he was unveiling legislation to bolster legal protections for the personal data of district residents.

The hearing comes shortly after Facebook disclosed a flaw that let its employees see the passwords of hundreds of millions of users and said it has now fixed the bug.

Facebook’s privacy problems date to the 2006 introduction of its news feed, which became a cultural fixture around the world. Back then, users were surprised and indignant to see their personal photos and posts suddenly out in the open. Now, as pressure on the company mounts, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has declared that it will focus on private messaging and small-group chats.

The case is District of Columbia v. Facebook Inc., 2018 CA 008715 B, District of Columbia Superior Court (Washington).