Don't be a jerk. That's the message the Federal Trade Commission is sending to the operators of Jerk.com after charging the site with harvesting personal information from Facebook to create profiles that mark them either as "jerk" or "not a jerk" and then claiming falsely that consumers could change their profile for a $30 fee.
From 2009 to 2013, Jerk LLC, which is owned by Napster co-founder John Fanning, created more than 73 million Jerk.com profiles -- and even brought children into the nefarious mix, according to the FTC's complaint.
The complaint charges the defendants with violating the FTC Act by leading consumers to believe that the content on Jerk.com had been created by other Jerk.com users. The truth is most of it had been harvested from Facebook. The FTC is also charging that Jerk.com's operators mislead consumers to believe that by paying for a Jerk.com membership, they could access "premium" features that could allow them to change their "Jerk" profile, which in fact they could not do.
Playing Off Online Reputations
"In today's interconnected world, people are especially concerned about their reputation online, and this deceptive scheme was a brazen attempt to exploit those concerns," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The FTC is seeking an order that bars the defendants' alleged deceptive practices and stops them from using the personal information they are accused of scraping. The FTC also wants Jerk.com to dump all the data it gleaned under false pretenses.
Jerk.com profiles often appeared in search engine results when consumers searched for an individual's name, the FTC said. When consumers viewed their photos on Jerk.com, the regulator charged, many believed that someone they knew had created their Jerk.com profile. Jerk is charged with reinforcing this view by representing that users created all the content on Jerk.
The truth is, the FTC said, the defendants created the vast majority of the profiles by misusing personal information they improperly obtained through Facebook. The FTC also alleged Jerk.com operators registered Web sites with Facebook and then used the social networking application programming interfaces to download the names and photos of millions of users. Jerk.com operators, they said, used that information in turn to create nearly all the profiles on the site.
Jerk.com, in a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg news service, blamed Facebook.
"We were equally horrified to discover that Facebook is placing personal information from its users including name and photographs in the public domain without requiring any agreement to its terms of service where anyone can acquire it," the statement said.
Facebook, for its part, said in a statement that Jerk.com had violated its terms of service.
"We applaud the FTC and will continue to work with them as they pursue Jerk.com and others that seek to abuse people who use our service," Facebook said.
Nothing for Something
Jerk profiles offer buttons that let users essentially vote on whether someone on the site is a jerk or not. The profiles also include fields in which users can enter personal information about the so-called jerk (or not jerk) and post comments about them. The complaint alleges that the profile comment fields set people up for abusive comments, like, "Omg I hate this kid he's such a loser," and, "Nobody in their right mind would love you...not even your parents love [you]."
The Jerk.com profiles also included millions of photos, including images of children and private Facebook photos, according to the FTC complaint. Some of the photos depicted especially personal snapshots of children in the bathtub or a mother nursing an infant.
The FTC called Jerk.com out for telling consumers they could "use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with." Finally, Jerk.com allegedly charged consumers $25 to e-mail its customer service department.