US’s FTC probes how social media giants use personal data

Federal Trade Commission asks how data is used to select advertisements for each user as Washington cracks down on Big Tech.

The Facebook logo is displayed on their website in an illustration photo taken in 2017 [File: Regis Duvignau/Reuters]
The Facebook logo is displayed on their website in an illustration photo taken in 2017 [File: Regis Duvignau/Reuters]

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is seeking information from Facebook, Twitter and other social media and video-streaming companies about how they use the personal information that they collect on their users, the United States’s agency said on Monday.

In addition to Facebook and Twitter, the orders requesting data were sent to Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp, Amazon.com, China’s ByteDance unit TikTok, Discord, Reddit, Snapchat’s parent company, and Google subsidiary YouTube.

The FTC is seeking to learn how the companies collect data on users, how they decide which advertisements to show and how algorithms are used, among other information, the agency said in a statement.

It is also seeking information about how the companies’ practices affect children and teenagers.

The companies have 45 days to respond to the orders, which are usually used to generate policy or recommend legislation.

In a joint statement, two Democratic members of the commission, Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter, and one Republican, Christine Wilson, noted their impetus for the order.

“Never before has there been an industry capable of surveilling and monetizing so much of our personal lives,” they wrote.

“Social media and video streaming companies now follow users everywhere through apps on their always-present mobile devices. This constant access allows these firms to monitor where users go, the people with whom they interact, and what they are doing. … Too much about the industry remains dangerously opaque”, the statement said.

Discord said it looked forward to answering the FTC’s questions. “We make no money from advertising, selling user data to advertisers, or sharing users’ personal information with others. Instead, the company generates its revenue directly from users through a paid subscription service,” a spokesperson said in a statement emailed to the Reuters news agency.

None of the other companies immediately responded to Reuters’ request for comment.

Federal pressure

The probe comes as Washington puts pressure on key social media and technology companies.

The FTC and nearly every US state sued Facebook on December 9, saying claiming it violated antitrust law and should potentially be broken up.

Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc [File: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg]

Facebook owns popular messenger service WhatsApp and image-based social media platform Instagram.

The coalition of 46 states, Washington, DC and Guam asked in the lawsuit for Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp to be judged to be illegal, which could cause them to be sold off.

The US Justice Department also filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google – which controls around 90 percent of online searches – in October.

Google claims the lawsuit is “deeply flawed” and will not help consumers.

Source: News Agencies

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