The 28 EU heads of state issued a warning shot on Thursday (22 March) over allegations that 50 million Facebook users’ data was harvested without their consent to influence political campaigns.
“Social networks and digital platforms need to guarantee transparent practices and full protection of citizens’ privacy and personal data,” read conclusions from the leaders’ discussion at a European Council summit in Brussels.
They warned that “EU and national legislation must be respected and enforced” and vowed to discuss the “important issue” at their next meeting, which will take place on 17 May in Bulgaria.
The leaders’ statement did not refer to Facebook by name.
But European Council President Donald Tusk was more explicit. He told a news conference on Thursday evening that the leaders had “discussed recent developments concerning Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It was clear to all the leaders that citizens’ privacy and personal data must be protected”.
The backlash from European heads of state comes after a tumultuous week for Facebook. Reports in the New York Times and the Observer last weekend alleged that the social media giant has known since 2016 but did not inform its users that their profile data was analysed for political campaigns by London-based firm Cambridge Analytica.
The data analytics firm reportedly worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Vera Jourova, the EU justice Commissioner, told reporters earlier on Thursday that she will send a letter to Facebook on Friday to demand explanations about the incident. She did not elaborate about the specific questions she will ask the firm.
Jourova met with US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in Washington earlier this week.
She told reporters that the case involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica does not only concern a potentially illegal breach of citizens’ personal data, but has “much more serious” implications, such as the threat to democracy and free elections.
“I’m sure this case will also be investigated from this angle and criminal justice as fraud, but it’s too early to say what the results will be,” Jourova said.
The UK data protection authority ICO is investigating the Facebook case as part of a broader inquiry into how personal data has been analysed for political campaign purposes. On Wednesday, the chair of the umbrella group of EU privacy regulators said that authorities from other member states are participating in a joint investigation led by the British watchdog.
The US Federal Trade Committee is also said to be probing the incident.
After days of public outcry, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a statement on Wednesday admitting that Cambridge Analytica’s use of the profile data was “a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it”.
British MPs have summoned Zuckerberg to a hearing and the European Parliament has also invited him to speak before the chamber.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani told reporters at Thursday’s EU summit, “We want to know if during the American elections and during the referendum on the Brexit, people used data for changing the position of the citizens.”