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Facebook Shared User Data Without Permission. Could Lead to ‘Thorny Legal Problems,’ Billions in FTC Fines

The latest revelations about how Facebook shared user data could put pressure on the Federal Trade Commission, heightening the risk of a multibillion-dollar fine for the social media giant.

(FB)Facebook, bound by a 2011 settlement with the FTC, isn’t supposed to share private data without the permission of users or misrepresent its privacy policies. But a New York Times report earlier this week said Facebook shared users’ private messages and allowed access to data about friends without their consent. Those are “two potentially thorny legal problems,” according to Matthew Schettenhelm, a Bloomberg Intelligence litigation analyst.

“Political pressure on the FTC is significant here. Not all of the allegations against Facebook are violations, but there’s a real possibility that some of them are,” Schettenhelm said in an interview. “And it doesn’t take many violations of the consent decree when you multiply it by how many users Facebook has for the FTC to get to a significant penalty.”

Facebook said in a blog post that none of the partnerships or features referenced in the Times article violated the settlement with the FTC.

Still, any potential fine dealt by the FTC would be more symbolic than anything else, according to Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst who rates the stock an equivalent of a buy.

“Do you think there’s any official, appointed or elected, in the government who is going to bankrupt the company just because they can?” Pachter said, adding, “If Facebook has a $5 billion fine, they’ll tough it out.”

Indeed a majority of analysts have a buy rating on the stock—41 compared with just 3 sells. And analysts on average are looking for the shares to rise to $189 in the next 12 months, showing that the market isn’t too concerned about a fine being levied against Facebook or other material risk to the stock. The shares, which are down about 24% this year, bucked the broader markets decline on Thursday and were little changed at $133.50.

Pivotal Research Group Analyst Brian Wieser sees more regulatory pressure coming from abroad in the near-term. “That said, FTC-related pressure is likely to play out. It’s a question not of whether they’ll be fined but how big will they be—and what are the consequences that follow,” he said. Wieser rates the stock a sell.

Even signs that some people are again deciding to delete their Facebook accounts hasn’t led to a stampede out of the shares. Walter Mossberg, a veteran technology journalist, said on Monday that he would be deactivating his Facebook account, along with Messenger and Instagram, which are both owned by Facebook.

“It’s not like Oprah did it,” Pachter said, referring to the media executive and actress Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah, that would scare me.”