In 1968, a group of law student researchers helped Ralph Nader publish a highly critical report on the Federal Trade Commission. They concluded that the FTC failed to “detect violations systematically,” to “establish efficient priorities for its enforcement energy,” to “enforce the powers it has with energy and speed,” and to “seek sufficient statutory authority to make its work effective.” As Tim Muris notes, the report “lambast[ed] the agency and characteriz[ed] its overall performance as ‘shockingly poor.'”
The FTC has taken many important initiatives to respond to concerns identified in the report. But we must now reconsider agency’s record, as the digital world changes kaleidoscopically and budget restraints hamstring even the best-intentioned FTC staff.
About the closest thing we’re likely to get to another “Nader Report” was Peter Maass’s expose in Wired on challenges facing privacy enforcement and consumer protection in the digital age. Here’s one of the many issues he identifies:
The mismatch between FTC aspirations and abilities is exemplified by its Mobile Technology Unit, created earlier this year to oversee the exploding mobile phone sector. The six-person unit consists of a paralegal, a program specialist, two attorneys, a technologist and its director, Patricia Poss. For the FTC, the unit represents an important allocation of resources to protect the privacy rights of more than 100 million smartphone owners in America. For Silicon Valley, a six-person team is barely a garage startup. Earlier this year, the unit issued a highly publicized report on mobile apps for kids; its conclusion was reflected in the subtitle, “Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing.” It was a thin report, however. Rather than actually checking the personal data accessed by the report’s sampling of 400 apps, the [17 page] report just looked at whether the apps disclose, on the sites where they are sold, the types of personal data that would be accessed and what the data would be used for.
As Maass notes, “The agency can take companies to court, but its overworked lawyers don’t really have the time to go the distance against the bottomless legal staffs in Silicon Valley.” Like an SEC pushed by budget constraints to pursue mere “cost of doing business” settlements, the FTC too often has to capitulate to symbolic penalties with dubious deterrent effect.