The Federal Trade Commission is alleging Massachusetts-based website Jerk.com and its owner, Napster co-founder John Fanning, deceived consumers when they collected personal information from Facebook to create profiles labeling more than 73 million people, including children, either a “jerk” or “not a jerk.”
The site – owned by company Jerk, LLC based in Hingham and managed by Fanning, who is from Hull – also misled people when it claimed that the content on Jerk.com had been created by other users of the site. Federal regulators said most of the site’s content was harvested from Facebook.
Administrators for Jerk.com told Boston.com on Monday that the information the webiste obtained from Facebook was publicly available.
“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,” said an emailed statement from firstname.lastname@example.org. “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.
Last year, Maria Crimi Speth, an attorney representing Fanning and his website, filed a petition seeking to end the FTC investigation on legal grounds.
The petition included arguments that the information posted to the Jerk.com was publicly available or user generated and that the company would field requests to remove profiles for a fee but the company could not guarantee that taking content off its website would remove it entirely from the Internet.
The petition called the FTC’s investigation “clearly a fishing expedition and it is being conducted at the expense and burden of Jerk, LLC.”
But, Jerk.com ultimately lost that appeal to stop the FTC probe.
Facebook officials on Monday told Boston.com that Jerk.com is to blame for exploiting its users’ information.
“We take breaches of our terms seriously,” said a statement from Facebook spokeswoman Genevieve Grdina. “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.”
In the federal complaint filed last week, FTC regulators said Jerk.com profiles often appeared in search engine results for an individual’s name.
“Upon viewing their photos on Jerk.com, many believed that someone they knew had created their Jerk.com profile,” the Federal Trade Commission said in a statement Monday. “Jerk reinforced this view by representing that users created all the content on Jerk.”
“But in reality, the defendants created the vast majority of the profiles by misusing personal information they improperly obtained through Facebook,” the agency added. “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.”
The profiles featured photos, including some from Facebook profiles that were designated as private, according to federal regulators.
“Some of them featured intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child,” the FTC said.
The profiles also allegedly included ways for site users to: vote on whether a person was a “jerk” or not; enter personal information about the individual; and post comments about them.
The federal agency said that “derisive and abusive comments” were posted to some profiles, such as: “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 FTC said that “the defendants also told consumers they could ‘use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with.’”
“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,” the agency added. But, “in many cases, consumers who paid the customer service or subscription fee often got nothing in return.”
The federal agency said it is seeking an order to end the company’s “deceptive practices” and to force the company to stop using and delete the personal information it obtained.
“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 a statement from the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Jessica Rich.
The complaint said the alleged violations occurred between 2009 and 2013.
The case is scheduled to go before an administrative law judge for an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 27, 2015.Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified statements as being made by Fanning’s attorney Maria Crimi Speth. The statements were in fact made by website administrators at Jerk.com. Speth did not comment for this story. Matt Rocheleau can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele.