The website Jerk.com claimed to rate more than 73 million people as "a jerk" or "not a jerk." But the U.S. government says the website's creators were the real jerks — they allegedly scraped Facebook for personal photos and other information, fraudulently claimed people could pay $30 to change their profiles (and then did nothing) and created a platform essentially devoted to cyberbullying.
The Federal Trade Commission has accused Jerk, LLC and its owner, John Fanning (co-creator of Napster), of illegally obtaining and using personal information from Facebook in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. The FTC seeks a court order to force Jerk.com to delete the information.
Jerk.com claimed on its site that personal profiles were created by other users, but according to the FTC's official complaint , the creators actually misused a Facebook application-program interface (API) to access Facebook user information without the users' consent, even on private profiles.
(Jerk.com has been taken down and its domain taken over by a blog, but you can access archived versions of the original website via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.)
Jerk.com profiles contained a huge amount of personal data, including people's ages, addresses, mobile-phone numbers, email addresses, occupations, schools, employers, license-plate numbers and Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and eBay account information.
The photos used on the profiles often contained even more information. Between 2 and 7 million Jerk profiles contained images of children under age 10. Other photos were described by the FTC as "intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child."
Jerk.com profiles were searchable and sometimes turned up when an individual's name was Googled. Understandably, some people were alarmed to find themselves among the 73 million profiled. Yet despite the fact that Jerk.com's homepage had a tag clearly labeled "Remove," site administrators refused to remove any profiles.
"No one's profile is ever removed," Jerk.com's website read, "because Jerk is based on searching free open Internet searching databases and it's not possible to remove things from the Internet."
The site's own policy didn't stop Jerk.com from trying to sell reluctant profilees $30 subscriptions to "manage your reputation," as well as $25 simply to contact customer support, according to the FTC complaint.
But customer support was usually unresponsive, according to the FTC complaint, even when law enforcement officials contacted the site because the information on a Jerk.com profile was endangering a person's safety. The complaint cites an instance in which Jerk.com "ignored a request from a sheriff's deputy to remove a Jerk profile that was endangering a 13-year-old girl."
If using people's personal photos and information without permission wasn't bad enough, Jerk.com seems to have used the stolen data to create a social network devoted to enabling cyberbullying.
The central conceit involved encouraging people to browse others' profiles and then rate them as a "Jerk" or "Not a jerk" based on the information provided. Users were then encouraged to elaborate on these ratings by leaving comments on other people's profiles. Most of these comments are best described as racist, sexist, homophobic and just about every other "-ist" you can think of.
For its part, Jerk.com claims that the information used to create profiles was all openly available online, and that the FTC should be prosecuting Facebook, not Jerk.com.
"It's certainly about time that 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 site said in an emailed statement to Boston.com.
However, both Facebook and the FTC allege that Jerk.com violated Facebook's terms of service.
To use Facebook's API, developers have to follow four rules: get Facebook users' individual consent to share certain data; delete information once Facebook revokes API permission; give Facebook users an easy way to request that their Facebook data be deleted; and delete information obtained through Facebook upon an individual's request.
The FTC says Jerk.com broke all four rules.
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.