Jonathan Spalter

Protecting Consumers Across the Internet

In the vast maze of federal bureaucracy, there is just one agency whose sole mission is to “protect consumers by preventing anticompetitive, deceptive, and unfair business practices.”  It is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  Yet from 2015-2017, a different agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), forced the FTC off the beat, dusted off rules written during the Great Depression and imposed them on a single corner of the online world—internet service providers.

Thankfully, this decidedly regressive attempt at swiss-cheese style consumer protection is now over—and that’s a good thing for consumers.  The FCC’s decision to end its lopsided regulation of internet service providers under archaic Title II rules clears a path for the nation’s leading consumer protection agency—the FTC—to have clear enforcement authority across the entire internet —and all the companies comprising it.

Indeed, as work continues in Congress to write strong and consistent online consumer protections into law—from neutrality to privacy—these proposals overwhelmingly look to the FTC as the enforcer in chief.  This approach avoids the Achilles heel of the prior FCC leadership’s failed Title II and consumer privacy experiments—the exclusion of the most powerful online players from the rules.  Those regulations simply did not apply to the so-called FAANG companies—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google.

Now, the FTC has the clear authority to ensure equal consumer protections across the internet.  This is not only the right and fair approach but it’s also the right agency to see these efforts through.  Policing complex and highly technical industries has always been the FTC’s bread and butter, and the agency is built to evolve alongside the businesses it oversees. A blog earlier this year by Neil Chilson, FTC Acting Chief Technologist, aptly described this proficiency. And, in a recent webinar, Chilson outlined how the FTC will apply these principles to its restored purview across the entire internet.

First, he noted, experience matters.  Harm to consumers and competition often follow similar patterns across industries and the economy, so with each new development, the FTC utilizes “tried-and-true tools and applicable knowledge.”  Technical expertise is equally essential, Chilson added.  From the technologists in the FTC’s Office of Technology Research and Investigation, to the undercover investigators in its Tech Lab, to number crunchers in the Bureau of Economics, the FTC is well-equipped to protect consumers.

The agency also can supplement its internal capabilities with outside experts from academia, research and other federal agencies. Indeed, through a Memorandum of Understanding between the FCC and FTC, the FCC will require internet service providers to be transparent with their customers about the services they provide and how they manage their networks.  The two agencies are working collaboratively on consumer privacy issues.

With the FTC back at the helm and appetite growing in Congress to make clear this enforcement authority is permanent and must be consistent across consumers’ online experience, Americans should feel growing confidence that a proven cop is on the beat to protect their interests across the digital world.

NOTE:  This op-ed originally appeared in Morning Consult on Arpil 2, 2018.  View the original article here.