08 April 2014


The US Federal Trade Commission has charged [PDF]  the operators of the Jerk.com website with
harvesting personal information from Facebook to create profiles labeling people a “Jerk” or “not a Jerk,” then falsely claiming that consumers could revise their online profiles by paying US$30. 
According to the FTC’s complaint, between 2009 and 2013 the defendants, Jerk, LLC and the operator of the website, John Fanning, created Jerk.com profiles for more than 73 million people, including children
The FTC claims that the defendants violated the Federal Trade Commission Act by
misleading consumers that the content on Jerk.com had been created by other Jerk.com users, when in fact most of it had been harvested from Facebook; and by falsely leading 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. 
The FTC is seeking an order barring the defendants’ deceptive practices, prohibiting them from using the personal information they improperly obtained, and requiring them to delete the information.

The FTC argues that
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 vast majority of the profiles by misusing personal information they improperly obtained through Facebook .... 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” or not, Jerk profiles included fields in which users could enter personal information about the subject or post comments about them. 
In some cases, the complaint alleges, the profile comment fields subjected people to derisive and abusive comments, 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 profiles also included millions of photos, including photos of children and photos that consumers claim they had designated on Facebook as private .... Some of them featured intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child. Numerous consumers have complained that photographs and other information about them on Jerk were originally posted on Facebook using controls that enabled users to designate material for dissemination only to a limited group, and that the information was not designated for public viewing …
Unhappy with undesired appearance on the site? Jerk.com indicated that
No one’s profile is ever removed because Jerk is based on searching free open internet, searching databases and it’s not possible to remove things from the Internet. You can however use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with. There are also additional paid premium features that are available.
The defendants told consumers they could “use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with”.

Importantly, the defendants allegedly
  • charged consumers US$25 to email Jerk.com’s customer service department, and also 
  • falsely told consumers that if they paid US$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. (In many instances consumers who paid the customer service or subscription fee got nothing in return).
  • did not respond to consumers’ requests and did not remove their photos from Jerk’s website. (Numerous consumers were hesitant to provide their credit card information to Jerk and thus had no easy mechanism to contact the company. Some savvy consumers contacted Jerk’s registered agent or web host and requested that respondents delete their photo, or a photo of their child, which was originally posted on Facebook.) 
  •  were unresponsive to law enforcement requests to remove harmful profiles. (In at least one instance, respondents ignored a request from a sheriff’s deputy to remove a Jerk profile that was endangering a 13-year old girl.)
In a nice display of chutzpah Jerk is reported to have responded that
the issue was caused by Facebook's privacy policies. …. 
"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".