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US government investigating how 9 social media companies collect and use data

The Federal Trade Commission, which enforces US antitrust and consumer protection laws, has issued orders to nine social media companies demanding information about how and for what purposes they collect and store user data. The FTC is also wants to know about the companies’ advertising and user engagement practices, specifically as they relate to child and adolescent users.

The list of targeted companies is a rogues gallery of digital malefactors: Amazon, ByteDance (owner of TikTok), Discord, Facebook, Reddit, Snap, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. They have 45 days to respond to the order. I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that any of them have 1300 numbers.

On its webpage, the FTC writes that the objective is to gain a fuller understanding of:

  • 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 FTC wants to understand how business models influence what Americans hear and see, with whom they talk, and what information they share,” explained the FTC in a press statement. “And the FTC wants to better understand the financial incentives of social media and video streaming services.”

As CNBC reports, there’s a clause in the FTC Act that enables the FTC to conduct wide-reaching probes that are separate from law enforcement. These are known as “6(b) studies.” The FTC carried one out earlier this year in which it reviewed various takeovers by some of the major US monopolies, namely, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Of course, Bill Gates’ Microsoft was the subject of a major antitrust lawsuit in 2001. In that case, Microsoft was confirmed as a corporate outlaw operating in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Now Facebook finds itself faced with a similar lawsuit filed just this month by the FTC along with 48 attorneys general. In that suit, Facebook is alleged to have taken over Instagram and WhatsApp after determining that, if left alone, they could pose a threat to Facebook’s hegemony.

Thus, Facebook is accused of unlawfully crushing competition and subsequently harming consumers by limiting their range of options, particularly with regard to privacy. Facebook plans to use the fact that the FTC approved its takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp as the main pillar of its defense.

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Facebook, of Cambridge Analytica fame, angry that app lets Instagram users spy on each other

And for the most ironic news of the week, Facebook is appalled that an app allowed people to view the profiles of Instagram users, even if the profiles are set to private. The app, aptly called Ghosty, has been downloaded more than 500,000 times via the Google Play Store. Ghosty is advertised in the following terms:

“You can view all the profiles you want to view including hidden profiles on Instagram. You can download or share photos or videos from your Instagram profiles to your gallery.”

The folks over at Facebook have caught wind of this, and they’re not happy. “This app violates our terms,” Zuckerberg’s company said in a statement. “We will be sending a cease and desist letter to Ghosty ordering them to immediately stop their activities on Instagram, among other requests. We are investigating and planning further enforcement relating to this developer.”

Meanwhile, in a sly attempt to appear to be concerned about the privacy and well-being of its users, Facebook-owned Instagram has begun testing an update to its app that reportedly makes it so that the “like”-count on a given post is only visible to the author of the post.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said the idea is to eliminate the competitive aspect of Instagram, whereby users desperately try to attract as many “likes” as possible to feel popular and boost their fragile self-esteem. After all, everyone knows a person is only as likable and successful as their last Instagram post.

“It’s about young people,” Mosseri said. “The idea is to try and depressurise Instagram, make it less of a competition and give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them and it’s really focused around young people. We get to see how it makes people feel about the platform, how they use the platform and how it affects the creator ecosystem but I’ve been spending a lot of time on this personally.”

As for Facebook attacking Ghosty, that’s a laugh. Facebook is one of the most invasive institutions in the world. Its whole business model is based on the bulk collection of user data—which legally belongs to them, not you, and which it can store forever—which it then shares with other corporations who exploit it to target you with personalized advertisements.

Your information is not safe with Facebook and it never will be.