FTC Chairman's Privacy Focus Is on Enforcement, Not Legislation

Four months after taking office, Federal Trade Commission chairman Timothy J. Muris yesterday revealed his privacy agenda, which was commended by the Direct Marketing Association and privacy advocates alike despite his decision not to recommend online privacy legislation.

In his speech before attendees of a privacy conference in Cleveland, Muris pledged to “increase resources devoted to protecting privacy by 50 percent” and enforce existing laws relating to privacy, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Specific actions the commission plans include creating a national do-not-call list, cracking down on deceptive spam, controlling identity theft, stopping misuse of financial information called pretexting, enforcing privacy policies, improving complaint handling and holding consumer workshops, he said.

However, Muris concluded that online privacy legislation is unnecessary right now.

“At this time we need more law enforcement, not more laws,” he said.

Muris, a Republican, was sworn in as the 55th FTC chairman June 4, replacing Clinton appointee Robert Pitofsky and giving the Republicans a 3-2 majority at the FTC.

His agenda was lauded by DMA president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen in a statement that said in part, “The DMA applauds the renewed focus of the FTC on enforcing existing laws to safeguard consumer privacy and consumer preferences. This will provide maximum protection and choice for consumers while not exposing business to a raft of new, costly legislation during a period of slowing economic growth.”

Though privacy advocates disagreed with Muris' anti-legislation stance, many were generally satisfied with his agenda.

“By the standards of the FTC's past two decades of consumer protection — which can only be described as timid — chairman Muris' agenda really represents a substantial improvement, and I commend him on that,” said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., Green Brook, NJ. “Broadly, I'm actually very pleased with what Muris has delivered. It's a great start to his tenure at the FTC.”

Still, at least two privacy advocates noted that Muris sidestepped issues such as online profiling and online identity services.

“Completely absent from Muris' speech were the more burning issues of the past two years in electronic privacy such as banner ad companies profiling and Microsoft's Passport and other identity services,” Catlett said.

Sarah Andrews, research director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, agreed.

“He's really playing it safe here, going after the older issues without dealing with the more complicated new issues that we're running into,” she said.

Above all, privacy advocates still see a need for legislation specific to online privacy.

“There is still a large issue looming out there, and that is the nature of the new commercial marketplace of the 21st century, which largely takes place online, which raises privacy issues that are unique to the online environment,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director at EPIC. “I think the problem that Mr. Muris is going to run into is that the former FTC under the leadership of Mr. Pitofsky did a very good job of documenting the need for legislation.”

Though enforcement of privacy policies is a positive step, there remains no law to require companies to post such polices, Andrews said.

Rotenberg and Catlett noted that Muris is not a legislator and that the nation's lawmakers would decide the question of legislation.

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