What if you found out your Facebook profile was labeling you as a jerk and compromising your online privacy at the same time?
More than 73 million people have been unknowingly involved in something that seems so juvenile it’s hard to believe this isn’t a fictional tale. Napster co-founder John Fanning is one of the operators of a website called Jerk.com, now in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly stealing personal information from Facebook to create profiles labeling people as either a “jerk” or “not a jerk,” then falsely claiming that consumers could revise their online profiles by paying $30.
But the sophomoric salesmen at Jerk.com have claimed that all the personal information they obtained from Facebook was publicly available. According to an emailed statement, “We were equally horrified to discover that Facebook is placing personal information from its users including name, and photographs in the pubic domain without requiring any agreement to its terms of service where anyone can acquire it. Most users don’t know this is happening.”
“It’s certainly about time that the FTC finally agrees with us and will clamp down on Facebook for what is clearly a unfair and deceptive practice that the Facebook founder has been exploiting for a very long time,” the statement added.
That seems like a plausible defense — but the team at Jerk.com will perhaps have more difficulty answering the FTC’s complaint that they had consumers pay to access “premium” features that could allow them to change their “Jerk” profile.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Jerk.com profiles often appeared in search engine results when consumers searched for an individual’s name. Upon viewing their photos on Jerk.com, many believed that someone they knew had created their Jerk.com profile. Jerk reinforced this view by representing that users created all the content on Jerk.
But in reality, the defendants created the majority of the profiles by misusing personal information they improperly obtained through Facebook, the FTC alleged. They registered numerous websites with Facebook and then allegedly used Facebook’s application programming interfaces to download the names and photos of millions of Facebook users, which they in turn used to create nearly all the Jerk.com profiles.
In addition to buttons that allowed users to vote on whether a person was a “jerk,” the profiles included fields in which users could enter additional personal information about the subject or post comments. Some of that private data included the subject’s age, address, mobile phone number, email address, occupation, school, employer, home phone number, work phone number, license plate number, and Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, and eBay account information.
The profiles also included millions of photos, including photos of children and photos that consumers claim they had designated on Facebook as private, the FTC complaint alleges. Some of them featured intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child.
The defendants also told consumers they could “use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with,” according to the FTC’s complaint. They allegedly charged consumers $25 to email Jerk.com’s customer service department, and also falsely told consumers that if they paid $30 for a website subscription, they could access “premium features,” including the ability to dispute information posted on Jerk.com, and receive fast notifications and special updates.
According to the FTC, in many cases, consumers who paid the customer service or subscription fee often got nothing in return.
The case is scheduled to go before an administrative law judge on January 27, 2015.