- As part of its investigation into Facebook, the Federal Trade Commission decided not to press for an interview with CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
- The agency believed Facebook would rather face off in court than voluntarily allow Zuckerberg to be deposed, Jim Kohm, the FTC’s director of enforcement told Business Insider.
- The decision stands out because enforcement agencies have often interviewed other CEOs when investigating their companies.
- The FTC felt it had enough information about Facebook privacy practices even without the interview and insisting on one would have delayed resolution in the case, Kohm said.
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The Federal Trade Commission’s decision not to interview Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as part of its privacy probe into his company can be chalked up to expediency.
The agency believed Facebook would fight wholeheartedly any attempt to depose Zuckerberg, Jim Kohm the FTC’s director of enforcement, told Business Insider in an interview Wednesday. It believed it could reach a resolution of the case sooner — and get better terms — if it didn’t press for a meeting to question Zuckerberg, he said. The FTC and Facebook announced a settlement Wednesday under which the company will pay a $5 billion fine and put in place a new privacy oversight structure.
Facebook “cared a lot about this,” Kohm told Business Insider. He continued: “That is one of the decisions that would have forced the case to court.”
Kohm believed the company was worried that if it allowed Zuckerberg to be deposed, his statements could have been used against him in private lawsuits. Zuckerberg’s statements also could have exposed him to other legal liabilities if he made any misstatements under oath.
Facebook representatives did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment about why Zuckerberg wasn’t questioned by the agency.
Even without interviewing Zuckerberg, the FTC felt like it had a good handle on his role in privacy decisions at the company, the FTC’s Kohm said. The agency obtained “millions” of documents from Facebook and interviewed other insiders at the company as part of its 16-month investigation, he said.
“We thought we had a very good picture of how Mr. Zuckerberg fit into this narrative,” Kohm said.
The FTC’s decision stands out
Still, the agency’s decision not to interview Facebook’s CEO was unusual. When investigating possible misconduct by or at companies, federal enforcement officials often interview the CEOs, who are typically the company’s principal decision makers. The US Department of Justice, for example, deposed Microsoft CEO Bill Gates as part of its antitrust case against the software giant two decades ago. The Securities and Exchange Commission interviewed Apple CEO Steve Jobs in the mid-2000s while investigating the company over its backdating of stock options.
Thanks to his status as the company’s founder and its controlling shareholder, Zuckerberg has arguably even more say over his company’s decisions and actions than even Gates and Jobs, who were known for their power.
But Kohm insisted in the Facebook case, the FTC would have been “grandstanding” if it insisted on interviewing Zuckerberg, he said. Doing so would have delayed a resolution by forcing a court case that likely would have resulted in more lenient sanctions against the company than the FTC achieved in its settlement, he said.
“If the tradeoffs are obvious and you don’t take the tradeoffs that best protect the American people, then you’re being irresponsible,” Kohm said.
The FTC’s settlement with Facebook has been roundly criticized, even from within the agency itself, as insufficient. The agency’s two Democratic commissioners voted against the deal, while Republican Sen. Josh Hawley blasted it, saying that the agreement “utterly fails to penalize Facebook in any effective way.”
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