FTC orders ByteDance, Facebook, Snap and others to explain what they do with user data

The FTC is ordering the companies behind many of the largest social and video platforms to explain how they use the treasure troves of data they harvest from users. Amazon, TikTok owner ByteDance, Facebook, WhatsApp, Discord, Reddit, Snap, Twitter and YouTube were all sent the order, with a deadline set 45 days from now.

The FTC’s focus is on how these companies “collect, use, and present personal information, their advertising and user engagement practices, and how their practices affect children and teens.” Four of the FTC’s commissioners voted in favor of the order, with Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips dissenting.

“Despite their central role in our daily lives, the decisions that prominent online platforms make regarding consumers and consumer data remain shrouded in secrecy,” Commissioners Rohit Chopra, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Christine S. Wilson said in a joint statement.

“… 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.”

The FTC’s new fact-finding mission is the latest federal action to put tech in its crosshairs, following last week’s news that the agency would sue Facebook over antitrust violations. The new order was issued under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act as a study of tech industry practices. It isn’t coupled with any law enforcement action, but that doesn’t preclude the agency from pursuing enforcement options with what it finds.

Last year the FTC signaled a deeper interest in tech, particularly on antitrust issues. The agency launched a purpose-built tech task force to monitor acquisitions and other potential competition-crushing behavior that raises red flags. In early 2020, the FTC launched an extensive separate study examining nearly a decade’s worth of acquisitions made by Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.