Facebook Sets Aside $3B for Possible FTC Fine

Facebook says the charge it took in the first quarter is a reasonable estimate of what it would cost to resolve an FTC privacy investigation.
Matthew HellerApril 25, 2019

Facebook reported better-than-expected quarterly revenue but its profit took a hit from a $3 billion charge to cover a possible settlement of a Federal Trade Commission investigation of its privacy practices.

The social media giant said on Wednesday that the FTC inquiry — which began in March 2018 following reports that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly access the data of 87 million Facebook users — remains unresolved and “there can be no assurance as to the timing or the terms of any final outcome.”

But in the first quarter, Facebook recorded the $3 billion charge as a reasonable estimate of the probable loss. “We estimate that the range of loss in this matter is $3.0 billion to $5.0 billion,” it said in a news release.

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Facebook posted first-quarter adjusted earnings of $0.85 per share, compared to $1.89 per share excluding the charge. Revenue rose 26% to $15.08 billion, beating analysts’ estimates of $14.98 billion, as advertising revenue got a boost from Facebook’s newer Stories products.

“We had a good quarter and our business and community continue to grow,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. “We are focused on building out our privacy-focused vision for the future of social networking, and working collaboratively to address important issues around the internet.”

A $3 billion fine would be the FTC’s largest against a tech company, easily dwarfing the $22.5 million penalty imposed on Google in 2012. Facebook’s shares rose 7.5% to $196.38 in after-hours trading Wednesday, suggesting investors have already priced in the potential FTC fine.

The company has $45.2 billion in cash and securities on hand to pay the fine and make any necessary acquisitions.

According to Wired, the fine won’t damage Facebook financially, but “symbolically [it] is hugely significant. Even as Facebook has been pilloried for two years over its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for the data leakage that created the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and for a hack last fall that exposed the data of 50 million users, the company had never been officially punished in any meaningful way.”