FTC Focuses on Big Tech with Public Comment
The US government will introduce new measures to crack down on companies’ data sharing and consumer surveillance practices, seeking the public’s advice on regulations to counter what it sees as a growing safety and health problem.
Announcing the decision, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said, “Commercial surveillance is the collection, analysis, and profiting from information about individuals. Mass surveillance has increased the risks and stakes of data breaches, deception, manipulation, and other abuses.
Companies’ practice of collecting data without express public consent puts people at risk of it being hijacked by cybercriminals and used against them, he said. Not only that, but there is evidence to suggest that such practices also put children, the elderly and ethnic minorities at increased risk.
“Mass surveillance has increased the risks and stakes of data breaches, deception, manipulation and other abuses.”
Federal Trade Commission
Announcing that it will open its doors to public comment for 60 days, the FTC said it would seek comments on “a broad range of concerns about commercial surveillance practices.” A virtual public forum will also take place on September 8.
The official deadline for submitting comments via the Federal Register will be announced by the FTC shortly when it opens for comment. The link allowing members of the public to have their voices heard will be posted on Regulations.gov “as soon as it is available.”
“Anyone in the public can submit a comment on regulations, general topics, or a specific question,” the FTC said.
Automated systems that analyze data collected by companies while shrouded in a veil of secrecy do so in biased ways, research shows, exacerbating social ills such as racism and ageism.
“Although very little is known about the automated systems that analyze data collected by companies, research suggests that these algorithms are subject to error, bias, and inaccuracy,” the FTC said. “As a result, commercial surveillance practices can discriminate against consumers on the basis of legally protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion and age, impairing their ability to obtain housing, credit, employment or other critical needs.”
He added: “Some companies fail to adequately secure the vast amounts of consumer data they collect, putting that information at risk for hackers and data thieves. There is growing evidence that some surveillance-based services can be addictive in children and lead to a wide variety of mental health and social problems.
Big Tech under surveillance
Topics of discussion will include the methods companies use to monitor customers, the steps they take when necessary to protect consumer data, and the harms to service users that are both easy and difficult to quantify.
Judging by an overview posted on the FTC’s website, the topics covered in the consultation will be comprehensive, inviting individuals and businesses to consider a wide range of issues.
For example, a breakdown by subject reads: “Lax data security measures and harmful commercial surveillance harm different types of consumers: young people, workers, franchisees, small businesses, women, victims of harassment or domestic violence, racial minorities, the elderly – in different situations. sectors of the Internet economy.
He then invites respondents to discuss how new trade regulations could mitigate this harm and to debate whether a global or sector-by-sector governance framework would best serve the public interest.
“For example, harms from data breaches in finance or healthcare may be different from those from discriminatory advertising on social media, which may [in turn] be different from those involving education technology,” the FTC said.
FTC may seek new powers
Despite this effort, the commission itself has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of any future regulations, primarily because it lacks the authority to enforce them with financial and other penalties under the FTC Act.
In a hint that it may seek such powers to underpin any new regulations it files following the consultation, the FTC added: “In contrast, rules that establish clear privacy and security requirements data at all levels and provide the commission with the power to seek financial penalties for first offenses could incentivize all companies to invest more consistently in compliant practices.
“Companies are now collecting personal data about individuals on a large scale and in an impressive array of contexts.”
Lina Khan, Chairman of the FTC
Commenting on the announcement, FTC Chairman Lina Khan said, “Companies are now collecting personal data about individuals on a large scale and in an impressive array of contexts. The increasing digitization of our economy – coupled with business models that can incentivize the endless vacuuming of sensitive user data and a vast expansion of how that data is used – means that potentially illegal practices can be widespread.
She added, “Our goal today is to begin to build a strong public case for whether the FTC should issue rules regarding business surveillance and data security practices, and what those rules should potentially look like.”
Commercial surveillance has become a huge industry in itself, with the FTC pointing out that companies are primarily profit-driven to collect data on internet users who track “all aspects of their online activity, their family and friend networks, browsing and purchasing, location and physical movements and a wide range of other personal details.
He added: “Companies use algorithms and automated systems to analyze the information they collect. And they make money by selling information through the massive and opaque marketplace of consumer data, using it to place behavioral ads, or leveraging it to sell more products.
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