Privacy Groups Accuse FTC of Being Digital Ad Industry Lapdog

A coalition of privacy groups have accused the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of being a ‘lapdog’ for the digital ad industry in a joint letter to the agency seen by Bloomberg, claiming that the regulator’s chairman Joe Simons is failing to properly protect consumer privacy.

The accusations come following a statement released by the Commission earlier this month, in which it warned the government against creating new privacy laws which require consumers to ‘opt-in’ to use of their data. The collection of privacy groups, which includes the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the FTC that the agency’s latest position on privacy laws “removes what little credibility the FTC under Chairman Simons has”.

The Trump administration has been collecting public input into ways in which consumer privacy and data can be better protected online, and the FTC submitted comments earlier this month to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. In its comments the agency claimed that it is “uniquely situated to balance consumers’ interests in privacy, innovation and competition”, and argued that is some cases consumer choice and control over use of their data “may be presumed or may not be necessary”.

“Certain controls can be costly to implement and may have unintended consequences,” said the FTC’s statement. “For example, if consumers were opted out of online advertisements by default (with the choice of opting in), the likely result would include the loss of advertising-funded online content.”

But the privacy groups which signed the letter said that these claims relied too much on a “self serving study” by the Digital Advertising Alliance, a group which counts the largest online advertisers, publishers and ad tech companies among its members.

The study in question was conducted by an independent research company, Zogby Analytics, on behalf of the DAA, but the privacy groups nonetheless feel the FTC’s opinion leans too heavily on this one industry-funded piece of research. “Instead of squarely defending the privacy rights of consumers it really capitulates to a pro-industry position using industry research,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “They’re incapable of standing up for the public and taking on these powerful interests.”

The FTC is not, however, against new privacy laws as a whole. In its statement to the NTIA, it said that “the Commission strongly supports” federal efforts at privacy legislation, and said it would “use its extensive expertise and experience to vigorously enforce any legislation that might emerge from these efforts.”

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