Jerk.com billed itself as the “anti-social network.” For a $30 membership fee, the site allowed users to vote on whether other people were jerks or not. The site also included the usual social network amenities, like a profile page and the ability to post and comment on updates. Users could also submit anonymous reviews about other users. However, over time, paid users discovered that they were not actually benefiting from their membership. In particular, paid members could not change information that was posted on the site.
In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against Jerk, LLC and its creator John Fanning. The complaint stated that the website deceived consumers with claims that all of its profiles were user generated, and that it made false representations about the benefits of paid memberships. Jerk.com actually had very few users in comparison to its large number of profile pages. The site used a computer program to create profile pages with content that it acquired through Facebook searches.
On a 5-0 vote, the FTC ordered Fanning to delete all personal customer information that the company obtained during the website’s operation. The order also prevented Jerk, LLC from selling or releasing the information. The main objective of the complaint was to prevent further misrepresentation of the site’s content and membership. Fanning then petitioned the FTC’s order to the United States Court of Appeals.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the FTC’s ruling that Jerk.com misled customers about the benefits of a paid membership and the source of the site’s content. It was clear from the facts of the case that Fanning’s website used deceptive acts and statements to get customers to pay for membership on the site. The Court upheld the majority of the FTC’s order, which included notification of complaints related to deceptive statements and maintaining advertising and marketing records.
Social networking is a primary communication method for both personal and business-related activity. The case against Jerk.com shows how seriously the FTC and the federal courts take the threat of exposing users’ personal data. Consumers must be able to protect themselves and to avoid deceptive practices that can put their personal information at risk.
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Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris Potter