Controversy continues to swirl around how the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained personal data from over 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge and used it to target ads to individuals in an effort to help Donald Trump be elected president in 2016.
But a more serious case of apparent misconduct involves Facebook data going to a different presidential campaign—this time in 2012. In this case, which is getting far less attention, Facebook reportedly voluntarily provided data on millions of its users to the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama.
If true, such action by Facebook may constitute a major violation of federal campaign finance law as an illegal corporate campaign contribution. The matter should be investigated by the Federal Election Commission—an agency I am quite familiar with, because I served as one of its commissioners from 2006 to 2007. The commission enforces campaign finance laws for congressional and presidential elections.
A federal law bans corporations from making “direct or indirect” contributions to federal candidates. That ban extends beyond cash contributions to “any services, or anything of value.” In other words, corporations cannot provide federal candidates with free services of any kind.
Under the Federal Election Commission’s regulations, “anything of value” includes any “in-kind contribution.” For example, if a corporation decided to offer a presidential candidate free office space, that would violate federal law.
Corporations can certainly offer their services, including office space, to federal campaigns. But the campaigns are required to pay the fair market value for such services or rental properties.
According to Carol Davidsen, the former media director for Obama for America, Facebook gave the 2012 Obama campaign direct access to the personal data of Facebook users in violation of its internal rules, making a special exception for the campaign.
The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, reported that Davidsen said on Twitter March 18 that Facebook employees came to the campaign office and “were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.” –Daily Signal