WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission has moved to ban online counseling company BetterHelp from sharing users' personal data to third parties for advertising.
Under the federal agency's proposed order, the online counseling service must pay $7.8 million to consumers to settle charges that it revealed users' personal data with third parties. It also will limit ways in which the service can share consumer information in the future, according to the Thursday announcement.
The $7.8 million fine will be used to issue partial refunds to users who signed up and paid for the company's counseling services between Aug. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2020. The FTC's actions mark the first time the agency is returning money to consumers whose health data have been shared.
"When a person struggling with mental health issues reaches out for help, they do so in a moment of vulnerability and with an expectation that professional counseling services will protect their privacy,” Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection Samuel Levine said. "Instead, BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit. Let this proposed order be a stout reminder that the FTC will prioritize defending Americans’ sensitive data from illegal exploitation."
The FTC complaint alleges BetterHelp had promised users that it would not share their personal health information except for limited purposes, like providing counseling services.
The federal agency said that despite the promises made, the counseling company revealed users' email addresses, IP addresses and health questionnaire data to Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo and Pinterest for advertising purposes.
In one example, the FTC details how BetterHelp shared users' email addresses and knowledge that they had been in therapy to Facebook in order to find similar consumers and target them with advertisements for the company.
BetterHelp issued a response to the FTC's proposal, saying that its advertising practices used between 2017 and 2020 are an "industry-standard practice" routinely used by some of the largest health providers, health systems and healthcare brands.
"We are deeply committed to the privacy of our members and we value the trust people put in us by using our services," the company said in a blogpost. "Nonetheless, we understand the FTC's desire to set new precedents around consumer marketing, and we are happy to settle this matter with the agency."
The proposal, which garnered a unanimous vote from the FTC, will require BetterHelp to receive "affirmative express consent" before disclosing information for any purpose. Among other requirements, the online counseling company must tell third parties to delete consumer health data that BetterHelp revealed to them.
The proposed order is subject to public comment for 30 days before the FTC can decide to make the order final.