The jerk.com website (jerk.com)
The operators of the website Jerk.com were sued by the Federal Trade Commission today for harvesting personal information from Facebook to designate more than 73 million people jerks or nonjerks, then falsely claiming that consumers could revise their online profiles by paying $30.
The site seemed to have it in for lawyers—the current top headline on Jerk.com is “Pillsbury Law Firm FIRED for Wrong Advice,” followed by “Attorney a Jerk” and “Sheppard Mullin Richter Hampton a Jerk for Bad Advice.” The site provides no further details of the jerk allegations. (A spokesmen from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman declined comment and a Sheppard Mullin spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
According to the FTC’s administrative complaint, Hingham, Mass.-based Jerk.com and manager John Fanning from 2009 to 2013 operated the social-networking site where users could create profiles of other people using the “Post a Jerk” feature.
“Although Jerk, LLC, claims that its website contained only user-generated content, respondents actually created or caused to be created the vast majority of Jerk profiles using information from Facebook,” according to the FTC complaint. “Respondents earned revenue by selling ‘memberships’ for $30, by charging consumers a $25 customer service fee to contact the website and by placing third-party advertisements on Jerk.”
The site featured user profiles with buttons underneath, where people could vote on whether the person was a jerk or nonjerk. The profiles also contained comment fields, where people wrote things like “Omg I hate this kid he’s such a loser.”
According to the FTC, an estimated 24.5 to 33.5 million profiles contained a large photo of the person, and about 2.7 to 6.8 million Jerk profiles contained a photo of a child who appeared to be under age 10.
In a March 2013 petition to quash the FTC’s civil investigative demand, Jerk.com attorney Maria Crimi Speth, a partner at Jaburg Wilk, in Phoenix, wrote that children under 14 are prohibited from using the site, and that if a child’s profile is brought to the company’s attention, it is removed.
In the petition, Speth said that “in 2012, Jerk.com only had 22 people subscribe to its service and its total revenue was approximately $3,000.” In the same petition, she also said that the site has almost 100,000 visitors per day.
“The content in profiles often displays information that is publicly available in a Google Internet search as well as newly created user-generated content,” she wrote. She did not respond to a request for comment.
The FTC disputed that the information in the profiles was public. “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,” the complaint states.
The FTC said Jerk got the data through Facebook’s application programming interfaces. Developers who use the interfaces are supposed to abide by Facebook’s policies, including obtaining consumer consent to use data and deleting information obtained from Facebook upon a consumer’s request.
Jerk on its website previously said that “No one 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.”
According to the FTC, “Numerous consumers believed that purchasing a Jerk membership would permit them to alter or delete their Jerk profile and dispute false information on their profile. In numerous instances, consumers who paid for a standard membership received nothing from respondents in exchange for their payment of the membership fee.” Also, it cost $25 to email Jerk’s customer service department.
The FTC sued Jerk under the Section 5 of the FTC Act, alleging the company made false or misleading representations and that its conduct was deceptive.
The FTC is seeking an order prohibiting the defendants from using improperly obtained personal information and requiring them to delete the information. The FTC also said it “may be necessary and appropriate” to seek consumer redress.
An evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge at the FTC is set for Jan. 27, 2015.