On Monday, April 7, 2014, the FTC alleged that Jerk broke federal laws and deceived consumers. The Massachusetts-based company created the social media site, Jerk.com which was active from 2009 until 2013. It also operated under jerk.be and jerk.org. The current jerk.com seems to have nothing to do with the original site. Also included, as a defendant in the FTC’s case is Jerk’s operator, and Napster co-founder, John Fanning. The FTC alleged that Jerk.com improperly accessed personal information from Facebook and charged dead-end fees, all while preying on consumers’ fear of having their reputations tarnished online.
The FTC alleged that Jerk.com improperly accessed personal information from Facebook and charged dead-end fees, all while preying on consumers’ fear of having their reputations tarnished online.
The Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Jessica Rich, stated, “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.” On the other hand, Jerk stated that consumers could “use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people you are in conflict with.”
The first allegation is that Jerk.com took most of the information for its 63.4 to 81.6 million profiles directly from Facebook, instead of being user-generated, as it claimed. Many of the pictures featured on Jerk’s profiles were designated as private on Facebook. It is estimated that 2.7 to 6.8 million of the photos featured children that appeared to be under the age of ten. There were photos of children being bathed and a mother breast-feeding her baby. The profiles, besides including photos, also featured personal information, the designation of jerk or not a jerk, and allowed other users to post comments about the profile’s subject.
Secondly, Jerk.com is alleged to have exploited consumers’ desire for clean online reputations for financial gain. Several consumers complained that simple Internet searches of their names would pull up their Jerk.com profiles, calling them a jerk. Jerk would charge $25 to e-mail a customer service representative, who would then suggest that the subject pay $30 for a subscription fee. Subscribers could access premium content such as being able to change their jerk profile. However, in most cases, the consumer got nothing in return for these payments, and the profiles were rarely altered.
In 2012, Facebook sent Jerk a cease and desist letter, which Jerk largely ignored. Instead, Jerk blamed Facebook for inadequate privacy policies: “We are 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.” Last year, Jerk filed a motion in an attempt to dismiss the FTC’s case. In it, they claimed the government investigation was nothing more than a fishing expedition. They claimed that their total revenue in 2012 was only about $3,000, that they had only 22 subscribers, and that they removed profiles of anyone 14 and under, once notified.
The FTC voted, 4-0 to issue the administrative complaint, and the hearings will begin on January 27, 2015, before an administrative judge in the FTC.