The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has opened to public debate whether it should regulate what it has dubbed “commercial surveillance” on the internet. This is what it calls the operation of businesses that share or sell information about users who have not given their unambiguous and informed consent, among other things in order to receive more effective advertising impacts. The agency points to research indicating a growing prevalence of such abusive practices, hence the need for action.
The process is based on what is commonly referred to as an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), which could end up as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) if it eventually results in a particular text. The Commission operates as a consumer watchdog in the US, but it has also acted as a guarantor of consumer data privacy for more than two decades. From this perspective, it considers that most of the users whose interests it defends have no real idea of the market that operates with the information they provide or leave as a trace by the mere fact of browsing websites or using services.
In any case, he also points out that the current framework in which he works does not provide him with sufficient authority to deal with the problems he describes in this first approach, insofar as it does not allow him to impose sanctions on those who do not comply with the regulations. Nor does it currently have sufficient resources to deal with all these cases.
Against this background, the FTC points to a number of key issues on which it wishes to gather testimony and information from the industry. All of these in turn open up derivative questions that the agency wants to debate: the extent of consumer harm caused by “commercial surveillance”; the specific harm to children and adolescents; the appropriate balance between the costs and benefits of possibly more restrictive regulation; and how regulation should be approached, taking into account a multitude of specific collateral issues.
The Commission is giving all interested parties 60 days to submit their reflections and data, and has planned to hold a forum on 8 September, which will be accessible to anyone via the internet. Different panelists who have expressed an interest in participating will be able to offer their views on the situation and the need or not for a regulation as proposed by the FTC. If it goes ahead, this initiative would further tighten the noose around the tech giants in the US, whose parliamentarians will soon have to debate a highly restrictive bill on dominance in digital advertising.