FTC’s Ad Regulator Plans to Focus Heavily on Native and Mobile

Jessica Rich also discusses privacy concerns


Who Jessica Rich

Age 51

New gig Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection bureau

Old gig Associate director of financial practices division

You are advertising’s top cop. What’s it like to be the most feared woman on Madison Avenue?

I don’t think of it that way. Our enforcement of unfair and deceptive advertising shouldn’t inspire fear, especially in legitimate companies. Most of the lines we draw are common sense, and most legitimate companies would agree that the ad claims we target are deceptive.

What was the most deceptive advertising case you worked on and why?

I don’t want to name a particular company. But I do feel strongly that the deceptive health claims are the worst because they not only take consumers’ money, but they also could prevent consumers from seeking more effective treatments.

What ad trends are you seeing that could warrant FTC action?

Native advertising will be a huge and continuing theme in our work. I want to make a broader push into mobile, mobile security, mobile payments, making sure we are able to bring mobile investigations, just as we are able to bring brick-and-mortar investigations.

You are also the FTC’s privacy guru. Are you surprised that consumers give up as much information about themselves as they do?

I don’t think consumers have any idea that when they give up information it could be sold again and again to multiple companies and there are really no limits on it.

What’s the harm in targeted ads?

Consumers appear to be bothered when ads target them based on sensitive information. When I am seeking health information and I get targeted with health ads, that really bothers me. Or when I get ads based on the fact that I have children or my finances. The greater fear is the information is not just used for ads. I don’t personally care about ads for shoes. I sometimes find them annoying, unless there’s a coupon.

You’ve just updated the children’s online privacy regulations. Should we do more?

We think the way we updated them was robust, but there is a lot of debate around teen privacy.

What do you do to protect your kids’ privacy?

I have two children, 15 and 13. It’s not a pretty story. Despite the fact that I push privacy choices and parental control over technology, all hell is breaking loose at home. I showed my kids how to clear cookies and sometimes they do that. We do look on their computers sometimes.

What about Facebook?

I have a Facebook page, but it’s there to spy on my 15-year-old.

Google’s Vint Cerf said that “privacy is an anomaly.” Do you agree?

No. The evidence suggests consumers care more about privacy than they used to. You see reactions in the public every time Google or Facebook change their privacy policy. The NSA and Edward Snowden incidents raised a lot of consumer awareness. It really made people think a lot about “Where is my data going?”

What more should the government do to protect consumer privacy and data security?

For a long time, I’ve supported privacy and data security legislation, and I think it’s time. It would benefit businesses, not just consumers. Privacy legislation may be elusive right now. But there has been agreement among many constituencies that data security legislation would be a good thing. I am going to do everything I can to support that.

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