How the FTC keeps up on technology
Because the FTC’s consumer protection and competition missions cut across so many technology industries, some call it the “Federal Technology Commission.” With only a few exceptions, the FTC protects consumers and competition across the entire economy. Technology now pervades every industry, so we constantly encounter new technologies as part of our job. See the bottom of this post for an extensive list, with links to examples, of technologies and industries where the FTC has experience or expertise.
Can the FTC effectively pursue its missions across such a diverse range of tech-heavy industries? Yes, for three reasons. First, our deep expertise in evaluating harm to consumers and to competition applies in every industry. Second, our significant internal technological proficiency helps us evaluate such harms in tech-heavy industries. Third, the FTC supplements its own resources with outside experts, including by coordinating with other government agencies. Let me expand on each reason.
As an enforcement agency, the FTC focuses on outcomes: we are experts at identifying acts and practices that cause harms to consumers and competition. Interactions with customers and with competitors are part of the practices of every company, in every industry. The FTC does not micromanage these practices. Instead, we evaluate the conduct of companies to see if they live up to the promises they made to consumers. We also assess whether companies engage in other acts and practices that cause harm to consumers and competition. Harms to consumers and harms to competition often follow similar patterns across the economy. Therefore, each time we encounter a new industry or technology, we start with tried-and-true tools and applicable knowledge.
Of course, to apply these tools FTC staff must have or acquire familiarity with the technologies involved in each case. Fortunately, the FTC has significant internal expertise or experience with many technologies. Our investigators expertly review technical documents and analyze volumes of data to evaluate company behavior and potential consumer injury. Our Office of Technology Research and Investigation employs technologists to support tech-focused investigations and produce original technical research. Our Tech Lab provides undercover Internet access and innovative tools to support technical investigations and capture evidence. And the number-crunching experts in our Bureau of Economics use big data techniques to model markets and assess consumer injury.
When the FTC needs more complex and richer information about specific industry or technology, we supplement our internal technological proficiency using two methods. First, we hire consulting and testifying experts to help us develop and litigate cases. Many of these experts are academic or research leaders in their fields. Second, we work with other agencies, such as the FDA, NHTSA, the FCC, HHS, and others that have specific subject matter expertise. The FTC has Memorandums of Understanding with many agencies explaining how the parties collaborate and share information. Our relationships with other agencies help us develop cases as well as advance other agencies’ missions.
In sum, we’re still the Federal Trade Commission, but “Federal Technology Commission” is a good nickname. The FTC can ably cover such a wide range of technologies because we specialize in evaluating the effects of company practices on consumers and the competitive process. We have significant internal expertise or experience, and we draw on external expertise when needed.
Over many decades, the FTC has successfully used this approach to protect consumers and the competitive process. We’ve done so across a wide range of technologically complex industries, as demonstrated by the list below. And the FTC will continue to use this approach to protect consumers and the competitive process as technology evolves.
Industries or technologies where the FTC has acted to protect consumers and the competitive process:
Apps and app development
Digital content-sharing platforms
Digital rights management
Internet advertising networks
Mobile phone cramming
Mobile traffic throttling
Robocall blocking technology
Semiconductors in a wide range of markets
Tech support scams