How Much Is Your Privacy Really Worth?

No one knows. And it might be time to stop asking.

Will Oremus


Illustration: Timo Lenzen

For big tech platforms, this was the year when violating users’ privacy got expensive. But did it get expensive enough?

In July, Facebook agreed to pay $5 billion to settle charges that it had misled hundreds of millions of users about their data privacy. That same week, credit reporting agency Equifax was ordered to pay up to $700 million for negligence leading to a data breach that exposed the information of some 150 million people. Earlier this month, Google was fined $170 million for harvesting millions of kids’ data on YouTube without their parents’ consent. Back in February, TikTok’s parent company had to pay $5.7 million for similar violations.

Each of those fines, issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), was record-breaking in some way. The $5 billion Facebook settlement, in particular, dwarfed any that a U.S. company had been previously forced to pay for privacy infractions. Yet privacy advocates found it woefully insufficient, and the two Democrats on the five-member commission publicly dissented. They argued that Facebook’s gains and the public’s injuries from the platform’s fast-and-loose privacy practices may have far exceeded the amount of the fine.