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FTC demands that social media giants come clean about user data collection

One commissioner is crying foul because the agency left off other social media companies like Apple and LinkedIn

Photo (c) Yuichiro Chino - Getty Images
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) turned up the heat on the social media big wigs on Monday. In a new mandate, the Commission will now require nine tech firms to disclose exactly how they collect and use data from their users.

Called on the carpet are the usual suspects -- Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter -- along with Google’s YouTube, TikTok’s owner ByteDance, Discord, Facebook’s WhatsApp, Reddit, and Snap. The companies have until January 28, 2021 to respond.

What is the FTC looking for?

Specifically, the FTC is leveraging Section 6(b) of the FTC Act, which gives it the authority to ask about how the companies “compile data concerning the privacy policies, procedures, and practices of [such] providers, including the method and manner in which they collect, use, store, and disclose information about users and their devices.”

Moving past the legalese, the FTC said that what it’s trying to ascertain is really more consumer-oriented. The questions it wants answered are:

  • “How social media and video streaming services collect, use, track, estimate, or derive personal and demographic information;

  • How they determine which ads and other content are shown to consumers;

  • Whether they apply algorithms or data analytics to personal information;

  • How they measure, promote, and research user engagement; and

  • How their practices affect children and teens.”

The commissioners weigh in

After making their demands, the FTC commissioners said that the agency is seeking more information in the best interest of consumers.

“Never before has there been an industry capable of surveilling and monetizing so much of our personal lives. Social media and video streaming companies now follow users everywhere through apps on their always-present mobile devices,” Commissioners Rohit Chopra, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, and Christine S. Wilson said in a statement. 

“This constant access allows these firms to monitor where users go, the people with whom they interact, and what they are doing. But to what end? Is this surveillance used to build psychological profiles of users? Predict their behavior? Manipulate experiences to generate ad sales? Promote content to capture attention or shape discourse? Too much about the industry remains dangerously opaque.”

Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips was the dissenting vote among the commissioners, saying that the move was an “undisciplined foray into a wide variety of topics.” He called his peers out for omitting other companies engaged in business practices similar to the nine companies named. Phillips asked why Apple, Gab, GroupMe, LinkedIn, Parler, Rumble, Tumblr, and WeChat weren’t also named. He answered his own question rather snarkily. 

“The only plausible benefit to drawing the lines the Commission has is targeting a number of high profile companies and, by limiting the number to nine, avoiding the review process required under the Paperwork Reduction Act...which is not triggered if fewer than ten entities are subject to request.”

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