This post was co-authored with Professor Woodrow Hartzog.
This past Tuesday the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against AT&T for allegedly throttling the Internet of its customers even though they paid for unlimited data plans. This complaint was surprising for many, who thought the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was the agency that handled such telecommunications issues. Is the FTC supposed to be involved here?
This is a question that has recently been posed in the privacy and data security arenas, where the FTC has been involved since the late 1990s. Today, the FTC is the most active federal agency enforcing privacy and data security, and it has the broadest reach. Its fingers seem to be everywhere, in all industries, even those regulated by other agencies, such as in the AT&T case. Is the FTC going too far? Is it even the FTC’s role to police privacy and data security?
The Fount of FTC Authority
The FTC’s source of authority for privacy and data security comes from some specific statutes that give the FTC regulatory power. Examples include the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) where the FTC regulates online websites collecting data about children under 13 and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) which governs financial institutions.
But the biggest source of the FTC’s authority comes from Section 5 of the FTC Act, where the FTC can regulate “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” This is how the FTC has achieved its dominant position.
Enter the Drama
Until recently, the FTC built its privacy and security platform with little pushback. All of the complaints brought by the FTC for unfair data security practices quickly settled. However, recently, two companies have put on their armor, drawn their swords, and raised the battle cry. Wyndham Hotels and LabMD have challenged the FTC’s authority to regulate data security. These are more than just case-specific challenges that the FTC got the facts wrong or that the FTC is wrong about certain data security practices. Instead, these challenges go to whether the FTC should be regulating data security under Section 5 in the first place. And the logic of these challenges could also potentially extend to privacy as well.
The first dispute involving Wyndham Hotels has already resulted in a district court opinion affirming the FTC’s data protection jurisprudence. The second dispute over FTC regulatory authority involving LabMD is awaiting trial.
In the LabMD case, LabMD is contending that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — not the FTC — has the authority to regulate data security practices affecting patient data regulated by HIPAA.
With Wyndham, and especially LabMD, the drama surrounding the FTC’s activities in data protection has gone from 2 to 11. The LabMD case has involved the probable shuttering of business, a controversial commissioner recusal, a defamation lawsuit, a House Oversight committee investigation into the FTC’s actions, and an entire book written by the LabMD’s CEO chronicling his view of the conflict. And the case hasn’t even been tried yet!
The FTC Becomes a Centenarian
And so, it couldn’t be more appropriate that this year, the FTC celebrates its 100th birthday.
To commemorate the event, the George Washington Law Review is hosting a symposium titled “The FTC at 100: Centennial Commemorations and Proposals for Progress,” which will be held on Saturday, November 8, 2014, in Washington, DC.
The lineup for this event is really terrific, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, as well as many former FTC officials.
At the event, we will be presenting our forthcoming article:
The Scope and Potential of FTC Data Protection
83 George Washington Law Review (forthcoming 2015)
So Is the FTC Overreaching?
Short answer: No. In our paper, The Scope and Potential of FTC Data Protection, we argue that the FTC not only has the authority to regulate data protection to the extent it has been doing, but it also has the authority to expand its reach much more. Here are some of our key points:
* The FTC has a lot of power. Congress gave the FTC very broad and general regulatory authority by design to allow for a more nimble and evolutionary approach to the regulation of consumer protection.
* Overlap in agency authority is inevitable. The FTC’s regulation of data protection will inevitably overlap with other agencies and state law given the very broad jurisdiction in Section 5, which spans nearly all industries. If the FTC’s Section 5 power were to stop at any overlapping regulatory domain, the result would be a confusing, contentious, and unworkable regulatory system with boundaries constantly in dispute.
* The FTC’s use of a “reasonable” standard for data security is quite reasonable. Critics of the FTC have attacked its data security jurisprudence as being too vague and open-ended; the FTC should create a specific list of requirements. However, there is a benefit to mandating reasonable data security instead of a specific, itemized checklist. When determining what is reasonable, the FTC has often looked to industry standards. Such an approach allows for greater flexibility in the face of technological change than a set of rigid rules.
* The FTC performs an essential role in US data protection. The FTC’s current scope of data protection authority is essential to the United States data protection regime and should be fully embraced. The FTC’s regulation of data protection gives the U.S. system of privacy law needed legitimacy and heft. Without the FTC’s data protection enforcement authority, the E.U. Safe Harbor agreement and other arrangements that govern the international exchange of personal information would be in jeopardy. The FTC can also harmonize discordant privacy-related laws and obviate the need for new laws.
* Contrary to the critics, the FTC has used its powers very conservatively. Thus far, the FTC has been quite modest in its enforcement, focusing on the most egregious offenders and enforcing the most widespread industry norms. The FTC should push the development of the norms a little more (though not in an extreme or aggressive way).
* The FTC can and should expand its enforcement, and there are areas in need of improvement. The FTC now sits atop an impressive body of jurisprudence. We applaud its efforts and believe it can and should do even more. But as it grows into this role of being the data protection authority for the United States, some gaps in its power need to be addressed and it can improve its processes and transparency.
The FTC currently plays the role as the primary regulator of privacy and data security in the United States. It reached this position in part because Congress never enacted comprehensive privacy regulation and because some kind of regulator was greatly needed to fill the void. The FTC has done a lot so far, and we believe it can and should do more.
If you want more detail, please see our paper, The Scope and Potential of FTC Data Protection. And with all the drama about the FTC these days, please contact us if you want to option the movie rights.
Cross-posted on LinkedIn