Consumer Complaints

Through a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we received records of all complaints filed to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding Internet privacy for the five year span from 2004 to 2008, inclusive. We received complimentary data sets from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC), and the California Office of Privacy Protection (COPP).

From two additional FOIA requests we received the free-text fields of a random sample of the complaints about websites in our top 10 and a random sample of complaints about Data Broker websites. We also received free-text fields from a random sample of the PRC data set. All records were stripped of personal information before disclosure.


Users Concerned about Data Brokers

From the FTC, PRC, and COPP data sets, we found a similar occurrence. A significant portion of the complaints are about data brokers and online sites that act as portals to brokers, such as ZabaSearch, Intelius, or US Search. Complaints about ZabaSearch were the most common within all three data sets. ZabaSearch made up 8% of the FTC complaints, 9% of the PRC complaints, and 18% of the COPP complaints. By comparison, in the FTC data set, the next three companies were Intelius (2.3%), US Search (1.6%), and Google (1.1%), followed by a long tail of hundreds of companies that each made up less than 1% of the total.

Users Concerned with Lack of Control and Unauthorized Public Display of Data

In our analysis of the free text complaints from the FTC and PRC we found that by far the most common categories of concern involved the public display of personal information and the lack of user control. This finding was consistent across all three free-text data sets we analyzed: the sample of all complaints from the PRC, the sample of complaints about top 10 websites from the FTC, and the sample of complaints about Data Broker websites from the FTC.

Users Only Complain When They Perceive an Invasion of Privacy and Know Where to File a Complaint

An analysis of the complaints about ZabaSearch revealed two distinctive spikes in the numbers of complaints during the five-year period (see chart), one in mid 2005 and another in mid 2006.

A conversation with the president and co-founder of ZabaSearch, Robert Zakari, revealed that the first spike coincided with a critical article in the San Francisco Chronicle, by David Lazarus. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse quickly picked up the story and discussed the company in its May 2005 newsletter. A follow-up article in August by the same author explicitly mentioned the PRC, whose website directed users to complain to the FTC.

Zakari also pointed out that the 2006 spike coincided with ZabaSearch removing their opt-out policy from the website. The PRC's monthly newsletter again featured ZabaSearch and specifically directed readers to complain to the FTC.

We believe these spikes illustrate that when a specific instance of the public display of a consumer's personal information is made known to them, and they are provided with specific instructions regarding to whom to complain, consumers are concerned and will voice those concerns to advocacy organizations and regulators.