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DC attorney general sues Mark Zuckerberg, claims CEO was 'personally involved' in privacy failures

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The attorney general for Washington, D.C. filed a lawsuit against Meta (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, accusing him of being personally responsible for the massive Cambridge Analytica data breach.

In the suit, Attorney General Karl Racine alleges that Zuckerberg's failure to oversee consumers' data privacy led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political consulting firm used millions of Facebook users' data, without their knowledge, in an attempt to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.

"The evidence shows Mr. Zuckerberg was personally involved in Facebook’s failure to protect the privacy and data of its users leading directly to the Cambridge Analytica incident," Racine said in a statement.

The civil suit, filed in Superior Court of the District of Columbia, claims Zuckerberg violated the Consumer Protection Procedures Act, the District's general consumer protection law.

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

"This unprecedented security breach exposed tens of millions of Americans’ personal information, and Mr. Zuckerberg’s policies enabled a multi-year effort to mislead users about the extent of Facebook's wrongful conduct. This lawsuit is not only warranted, but necessary, and sends a message that corporate leaders, including CEOs, will be held accountable for their actions,” Racine said.

Meta has been at the center of a maelstrom of controversy since news of Cambridge Analytica first broke. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Facebook to pay a $5 billion fine related to the scandal. Governments and regulators across the globe, including the FTC, are also cracking down on the social media giant via antitrust suits and legislation.

According to Racine, the latest suit against Zuckerberg comes as a result of an existing investigation and lawsuit his office filed against Facebook in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018.

Racine claims that because Zuckerberg holds the largest number of shares of Meta and has final say over everything that happens at the company, he is ultimately responsible for Facebook's day-to-day operations. As a result, Racine claims, Zuckerberg is also responsible for the events that led to the scandal.

According to University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor, Peter Oh, it's unclear how strong the case against Zuckerberg may be.

“One clear possibility here is that this may be a lawsuit that could be politically motivated by the attorney general. On the other hand, there’s potentially a very legitimate reason why the attorney general may be deciding to do this,” Oh told Yahoo Finance.

If Racine’s complaint survives, Oh explained, it has the potential to be a wake-up call for the Meta CEO, as he could be personally liable.

And there’s real risk that the case will move forward, Oh said, given that Zuckerberg has a history of vouching for the actions of the company.

“Zuckerberg has publicly stated, effectively, that the buck stops with him — that he runs the company, he owns the company, and therefore, he should be held accountable for what the company does. I think what you can say is that with this particular lawsuit the attorney general is calling his bluff,” Oh said.

A spokesperson for Meta told Yahoo Finance that the company had no comment.

This isn't the first time Racine has gone after Zuckerberg personally. He previously attempted to name the CEO personally responsible for the user data leak in a 2018 suit related to Cambridge Analytica. The judge in that case, however, dismissed the move, saying that Racine waited too long to name Zuckerberg in the case.

Since the 2018 suit filed by Racine, Facebook has changed its name. In October 2021, Facebook rebranded as Meta with the goal of focusing the company on the metaverse, though some commentators suspect the name change was a means for Facebook to distance itself from its ongoing legal troubles.

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoofinance.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.