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FTC Demands Social-Media, Operations Data From Big Tech Companies

WASHINGTON—The Federal Trade Commission on Monday ordered nine prominent social-media and internet companies to provide a litany of data about their operations as part of a wide-ranging study into their business practices.

The orders demand the companies turn over detailed, private business information about how they track Americans’ online activities and how they use that data.

Companies receiving letters included

Amazon.com Inc.,


AMZN 1.30%

Facebook Inc.


FB 0.23%

and its subsidiary WhatsApp Inc., Reddit Inc.,

Snap Inc.,


SNAP -3.24%

Twitter Inc.,


TWTR 1.13%

Alphabet Inc.’s


GOOG -1.22%

YouTube LLC, Discord Inc. and TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd., which is based in Beijing.

The announcement isn’t a law-enforcement action and doesn’t carry any immediate penalties, though the information gathered could form the basis for future action by the FTC. The agency has broad legal authority to seek information from U.S. companies and is also empowered to police unfair and deceptive business practices.

The Government vs. Big Tech

“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. But to what end?” FTC Commissioners

Rohit Chopra,

Rebecca Slaughter

and

Christine Wilson

said in a joint statement. “Too much about the industry remains dangerously opaque.”

FTC Chairman

Joseph Simons

voted with the 4-1 majority to approve the order, but without comment. Commissioner

Noah Phillips

dissented, saying he supported the broader objective but calling the FTC’s request “an undisciplined foray into a wide variety of topics, some only tangentially related to the stated focus of this investigation.”

The companies have 45 days to respond. Representatives of the companies generally declined to comment or didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We’re working, as we always do, to ensure the FTC has the information it needs to understand how Twitter operates its services,” said a Twitter spokesperson.

The FTC’s move is the latest regulatory headache for tech companies in Washington, following antitrust lawsuits against Facebook and Alphabet’s Google in recent weeks. Facebook and YouTube were also hit with FTC fines last year, Facebook for breaking promises about protecting user privacy and YouTube for impermissible collection of data on child users.

A 31-page sample order published by the agency demands an array of data and documentation related to business strategies, algorithms, advertising revenue and “each User Attribute that the Company uses, tracks, estimates, or derives.”

Leaders in government and tech want to rewrite a law that governs the internet. WSJ explains Section 230, how it shaped the modern internet, and what lawmakers and tech executives want to change. Photo illustration: Carlos Waters/WSJ

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected]

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