Privacy Advocates Urge FTC Reform, Call for New Legislation

They say regulation must address threats to consumer protection

Sen. Warner has been one of the leading advocates of tech regulation. Getty Images
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Consumer advocacy groups have launched a concerted effort calling for a systematic overhaul of U.S. data privacy laws, alleging that the Federal Trade Commission is now unfit for purpose, with leading electing politicians also weighing in on the debate.

U.S. data privacy laws must be overhauled along with the creation of a new data privacy agency that can address the 21st century threats to consumer protection, according to those behind the lobbying effort which calls for reform at a federal level.

As part of the coordinated effort, the pressure groups have set out a framework for comprehensive privacy protection with the list of proposals including: federal privacy legislation that will act as a baseline for state law; enforceable fair information practices that bind companies whose business model rely on the collection and storage of personal data; the limitation of government access to personal data and the establishment of an independent data protection agency independent of the FTC.

The coalition of organizations calling for the privacy overhaul includes: Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood, Color Of Change, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Public Citizen.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said the effort was aimed at helping to ward-off “big tech coming to Washington looking for a deal that affords inadequate protections” for the public in an overall bid to pre-empt privacy legislation by individual states.

“But here’s the bad news for the tech giants: That deal isn’t going to fly,” he said. “Instead, the American people are demanding—and intend to win—meaningful federal restraints on tech company abuses of power that also ensure the right of states to craft their own consumer protections.”

Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color Of Change, added, “We need privacy legislation that holds powerful corporations accountable for their impacts. Burdening our communities with the need to discern how complex terms of service and algorithms could harm us will only serve to reinforce discriminatory corporate practices.”

Meanwhile, Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, raised how the monitoring capabilities of homes assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are “designed to spy on families and children” and advocated “21stcentury legislation.”

Caitriona Fitzgerald, policy director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also highlighted how corporations are able to disregard existing regulations as they are aware that the FTC lacks rulemaking authority and that it often fails to enforce rules.

When presented with the proposals by Adweek, Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) echoed concerns over the FTC’s ability to perform its prescribed functions in the contemporary era.

He said, “Recent press reports and the agency’s own track record raise serious questions about whether the FTC is up to the twin tasks of consumer protection and competition enforcement in the digital age. I welcome a conversation about what reforms are needed to protect Americans from anti-competitive conduct and abuses of their privacy.”

Sen. Warner earlier spoke with Adweek about his concerns on mass data collection and the subsequent impact on citizens’ privacy and has been a leading voice on Capitol Hill over the failure of large corporations to address data protection with the urgency it warrants.

Also discussing the terms with Adweek, Shane Green, CEO of advocacy group Digi.Me, said such lobbying of government sources is welcome to offset the “weak privacy principles” that pro-industry groups urge politicians to adopt.

“I am quite concerned that those kinds of industry groups are trying to co-opt privacy regulations in a way that both weakens the laws and reinforces the market dominance of the incumbents by requiring burdensome measures,” said Green.

He went on to add, “This framework also addresses one of my biggest concerns, which is algorithmic governance. This goes to the heart of transparency and understanding bias and discrimination, as well as how our data is used to manipulate our decision making. I think their ideas are rough and undeveloped, but I applaud them raising the issue as a frontline issue that must be addressed while protecting innovation.”

Additional reporting by Kelsey Sutton 

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.