FTC launches widespread investigation into tech companies' practices

The FTC crest on a building
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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched a wide-ranging investigation into nine social media and video streaming services’ privacy practices.

On Monday, the FTC sent orders to Amazon, ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company), Discord, Reddit, Snap, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube. The orders required the companies to provide data on how they collect, use, and present personal information.

They companies also had to explain their advertising and user-engagement practices and how their operations affected children and teens.

The FTC issued the orders under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act, which permits it to conduct wide-ranging studies, even if there’s no direct link to an enforcement order.

The orders, which demand the information within 45 days, go into considerable detail. The companies must provide monthly figures relating to their social media and video streaming services since January 2019, separated into desktop and mobile.

This data includes the number of registered, daily, and monthly active users, the time users spent on the service, and the number of sessions users launched in aggregate. It also includes the number of unique posts made separated by content category. They must also provide information about the number of views, likes, shares, and comments made on each service.

Companies must also provide the number of messages and status updates sent and their overall social graphs. They must report their advertising engagement across each advertising format and the average revenue per user, along with a catch-all "any other measure of user traffic, density, engagement, or activity used by the Company in the ordinary course of business."

The FTC also requires the tech firms drill down to provide these figures by individual user groups, defined by age, whether or not they're Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish, and what country they're in.

The orders also call for companies to identify the user attribute they track for each separate service offered, along with the top 1,000 attributes most frequently used. They must explain how they share personal information and who with, along with policies governing those agreements.

A laundry list of other requests includes detailed information about advertisers, such as the number of bids in advertising auctions, and advertisers' return on investment.

Notable sections demand information about how the services moderate and promote the content users see, which has been a focal point for critics who worry about disinformation on social media sites.

The FTC's commissioners approved the order 4-1. In a joint statement, three commissioners said, "Policymakers and the public are in the dark about what social media and video streaming services do to capture and sell users’ data and attention. It is alarming that we still know so little about companies that know so much about us."

Voting against the order was Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips, who called it "an undisciplined foray into a wide variety of topics, some only tangentially related to the stated focus of this investigation." He also criticized the dissimilarity of the recipients.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.