The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently accused the operator of (Jerk) of misrepresenting to users the source of the personal content that Jerk used for its purported social networking website and the benefits derived from a user’s purchase of a Jerk membership.   According to the FTC, Jerk improperly accessed personal information about consumers from Facebook, used the information to create millions of unique profiles identifying subjects as either “Jerk” or “Not a Jerk” and falsely represented that a user could dispute the Jerk/Not a Jerk label and alter the information posted on the website by paying a $30 subscription fee.  The interesting issue in this case is not the name of the defendant or its unsavory business model; rather, what’s interesting is the FTC’s tacit enforcement of Facebook’s privacy policies governing the personal information of Facebook’s own users.

Misrepresenting the Source of Personal Information

Although Jerk represented that its profile information was created by its users and reflected those users’ views of the profiled individuals, Jerk in fact obtained the profile information from Facebook.  In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Jerk accessed Facebook’s data through Facebook’s application programming interfaces (API), which are tools developers can use to interact with Facebook, and downloaded the names and photographs of millions of Facebook users without consent. The FTC used Facebook’s various policies as support for its allegation that Jerk improperly obtained the personal information of Facebook’s users and, in turn, misrepresented the source of the information.  The FTC noted that developers accessing the Facebook platform must agree to Facebook’s policies, which include (1) obtaining users’ explicit consent to share certain Facebook data; (2) deleting information obtained through Facebook once Facebook disables the developers’ Facebook access; (3) providing an easily accessible mechanism for consumers to request the deletion of their Facebook data; and (4) deleting information obtained from Facebook upon a consumer’s request.  Jerk used the data it collected from Facebook not to interact with Facebook but to create unique Jerk profiles for its own commercial advantage.  Jerk’s misappropriation of user data from Facebook was the actual source of the data contrary to Jerk’s representation that the data had been provided by Jerk’s users.

Misrepresenting the Benefit of the Bargain

According to the FTC, Jerk represented that purchase of a $30 subscription would enable users to obtain “premium features,” including the ability to dispute information posted on Jerk and alter or delete their Jerk profile and dispute the false information on their profile.  Users who paid the subscription often received none of the promised benefits.  The FTC noted that contacting Jerk with complaints was difficult for consumers:  Jerk charged $25 for users to email the customer service department.

A hearing is scheduled for January 2015. Notably, the FTC’s proposed Order, among other prohibitions, enjoins Jerk from using in any way the personal information that Jerk obtained prior to the FTC’s action – meaning the personal information that was obtained illegally from Facebook.