New FTC Chairman Seen As Friendly to Marketers

Marketers may be able to rest easier with Timothy J. Muris newly installed as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

Muris, a Republican, was sworn in as the 55th FTC chairman on June 4, giving the Republicans a 3-2 majority at the FTC. He began appointing senior staff that week.

“Generally speaking, when a Republican administration comes into power, the FTC tends to have a less aggressive attitude toward business than with a Democratic administration,” said advertising and marketing attorney Douglas J. Wood, a partner at Hall Dickler Kent Goldstein & Wood LLP, New York.

Wood said he does not know much about Muris specifically but does not expect the FTC to crack down too much under his leadership.

Another attorney who specializes in Internet marketing said the FTC might take a step back in its dealings with marketers because of Muris' background in economics.

“He's an economist, so he very much takes a view of how the markets will be affected by certain actions that the FTC takes,” said Marc Roth of Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner LLP, New York.

Roth cited a case in which Muris argued that the Fair Credit Reporting Act is unconstitutional because it is a company's First Amendment right to use customer data.

Privacy advocates, another group with its eyes on Muris, are not sure what to expect.

“We don't have much to go on. Rumors have been that Muris is highly unsympathetic to privacy concerns, but nothing has supported that yet,” said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., Green Brook, NJ. “He's said some things that were reassuring to many privacy advocates.”

Though Muris is a Republican, privacy advocates hope he will support strong privacy rights for consumers. Regarding consumer privacy, Muris has commended former FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky's efforts and claimed he intends to follow his lead.

“I would say that the new chairman himself has not made any strong statements about privacy. We really just don't have a clear idea of where the FTC is going to go on the issue,” said Andrew Shen, senior policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Washington. “Antitrust seems to be the subject of every story that's covered him so far.”

Indeed, one of Muris' first speaking engagements as FTC chairman was his June 12 address at the second annual Conference of the American Antitrust Institute.

In his speech, he made almost no reference to privacy, which may not be surprising, given the audience he was addressing. However, Muris did make brief mention of the FTC's efforts in the online privacy arena under Pitofsky.

“With the overall goal of protecting consumers without imposing unnecessary burdens on this emerging marketplace, [Pitofsky's efforts] called for aggressive law enforcement, especially against fraud; consumer and industry education; and the development of policies in areas raising new consumer protection concerns, including privacy,” Muris said.

Still, it seems that privacy advocates are willing to give Muris the benefit of the doubt for now.

The Privacy Coalition, a nonpartisan coalition of consumer, civil liberties, educational, family, library, labor and technology organizations, invited Muris to attend one of its meetings, according to Catlett, whose firm is a member. Though Muris declined, Catlett said Muris' office has begun arranging individual meetings with privacy and consumer groups.

A spokeswoman for the FTC confirmed that meetings with privacy organizations have been set up for later this month and may run into July.

Even so, Wood and Roth agreed that privacy would probably take a back burner at least for a while.

“The fact of the matter is that there's so much stuff going up on the Hill right now that privacy just isn't going to make it — I don't think,” Wood said.

Roth was slightly more emphatic in his assessment of Muris' privacy leanings.

“So far, certain signals suggest that privacy is not high on his agenda,” he said.

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