The Federal Trade Commission is stepping up its work on digital privacy and has asked just about every major social media platform you can think of about what personal data it collects from users and why.
According to the press release, requests for information were sent to nine platforms (or their parent company, if applicable), including Discord, Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube. The companies receiving the orders have 45 days to explain to the FTC:
- How social media and video streaming services collect, use, track, estimate, or infer personal and demographic information
- How they determine what ads and other content are shown to consumers
- Whether they apply algorithms or data analysis to personal information
- How they measure, nurture, and research user engagement
- How their practices affect children and adolescents
A sample order (PDF) shows the depth and specificity of information the FTC requests from each company, including extremely detailed data on monthly and daily active users, business and promotional strategies, and potential plans for acquisitions or divestments. Interestingly, each company must also indicate how many users it has inaccurate demographic information for and how it honors targeted advertising, including inaccurately targeted advertising. In other words, one of the things the FTC wants to know is: Are you giving advertisers their money back if you aren't actually targeting the groups they want to reach?
The investigations aren't part of any particular malpractice probe … at least not for now. Section 6 (b) of the FTC Act gives the Commission the power to conduct certain types of wide-ranging studies that are not tied to a specific law enforcement process or suspicion. The review of Big Tech's smallest acquisitions the FTC began in February is another 6 (b) study.
The commission voted 4: 1 to start the study. Three commissioners – Rohit Chopra, Rebecca Slaughter and Christine Wilson – issued a joint statement (PDF) in support of the investigation.
"Social media and video streaming services have become almost inevitable in today's modern world," wrote the commissioners, particularly in the era of the socially distant pandemic. "Despite their central role in our daily lives, the decisions that prominent online platforms make remain secret. Critical questions about business models, algorithms, and data collection and use have remained unanswered.
"Never before has there been an industry that has been able to monitor and monetize so much of our personal lives," the commissioners continued. To that end, the 6 (b) study is "a step towards much-needed clarity" about what companies are all doing, how and why.
Commissioner Noah Phillips, who voted against the study, issued a separate dissent (PDF).
The orders were "an undisciplined foray into a variety of subjects, some of which are only tangential to the stated focus of this investigation," Phillips said, arguing that the probe was a waste of FTC resources and would not provide the public with valuable information or address consumer privacy issues.
"Special attention for children"
Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) Issued a statement in support of the investigation. "No comprehensive study of these sites would be complete without paying special attention to children and adolescents, a uniquely vulnerable online population," said Markey. "I am glad the FTC followed my calls to issue these orders, and I thank my non-partisan partners who have joined me in advocating this investigation."
Markey and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) Tabled a bill back in March that specifically addresses the "opaque ways" by which digital media apps and platforms are marketed to users under the age of 16.