In a release published Thursday, FTC Chair Lina Khan announced that the agency would soon begin exploring ways to crack down on “commercial surveillance and lax data security.” The former refers to the practice of collecting and analyzing consumer data for financial gain—something tech companies increasingly participate in, whether discreetly or out in the open, as Americans conduct more of their lives online. The simple fact that companies are able to profit from consumer data incentivizes them to harvest even more of it, the release said, despite consumers only willingly giving up a small fraction of that data. This creates unnecessary room for various digital abuses, including severe data breaches and discriminatory abuses of people’s personal information.
The FTC’s release, formally referred to as an “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” serves as a call to action for Americans as well as a warning to tech companies of what’s to come. Though the FTC is somewhat limited in its penalization of abuses thanks to a Supreme Court ruling from last year (which prohibited the FTC from seeking financial retribution for initial offenses), it does have some wiggle room in which to protect consumer data privacy. Section 18 of the FTC Act grants the agency express authority to create and enforce rules regarding “unfair” or “deceptive” business practices. It’s this authority that the FTC plans on using to wrangle big tech’s Wild West consumer data practices.
To do that, though, the FTC is hoping to hear from those it’s advocating for: the people. “Our goal at this stage is to begin building a rich public record to inform whether rulemaking is worthwhile and the form that potential proposed rules should take,” Khan said in a separate statement. “Robust public engagement will be critical—particularly for documenting specific harmful business practices and their prevalence, the magnitude and extent of the resulting consumer harm, the efficacy or shortcomings of rules pursued in other jurisdictions, and how to assess which areas are or are not fruitful for FTC rulemaking.”
Consumers will have approximately two months to submit comments and questions relating to commercial surveillance risks, current data protection measures, and the perceived costs and benefits associated with the creation and enforcement of new rules. The FTC will also host a virtual public forum on September 8, where consumers can raise similar questions and concerns.