This is the second in a series of seven posts about regulatory compliance priorities and enforcement trends. Last week’s post was about the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Today’s post will be about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). On Thursday January 4, the post will be about the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). On Thursday January 11, the post will be about the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). On Thursday January 18, the post will be about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On Thursday January 25, the post will be about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Finally, on Thursday February 1, the post will be about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the US regulator charged with supervisory authority to protect consumers as well as enforce antitrust laws to avoid monopolies and ensure competitive business practices. Created in 1914 by the Federal Trade Commission Act, the FTC is an independent regulatory agency with the purpose to monitor the markets for anticompetitive developments and investigate and eliminate those where they emerge. Avoiding monopolies, known as trust, was a major political focus at the time the FTC was created and eliminating these large, anti-competitive business entities, known as “trust busting,” was an important priority for President Woodrow Wilson. The creation of the FTC was intended to bring an administrative efficiency to regulating interstate trade so that these trust and antitrust matters could be determined more expediently by the regulatory agency instead of working their way slowly through the courts.
In its current state, the FTC has broad supervisory authority over business practices where consumer protection or competitive processes are involved. The mandates of its various bureaus include protecting consumers against unfair or fraudulent acts or practices, enforcing existing antitrust laws, and reviewing pending mergers. These issues come from consumer and business reports, pre-merger notice filings, press reports, and congressional inquiries.
The FTC’s enforcement actions extend to individual companies, groups of companies, or industries with the main objective of addressing series consumer fraud or harm and preventing anti-competition business developments. With such a far-reaching set of interests, the issues and focuses that characterize the FTC’s regulatory agenda and enforcement priorities are equally diverse.
- Consumer DNA testing services and privacy: Companies offering DNA testing services for everything from ancestry to genetic diseases to potential allergies to nutritional needs have become very popular in recent years. Most of these services involve consumers using a kit at home to collect samples of hair, skin, or saliva, which they then send to the company. The company then tests the samples itself or sends them to a third-party lab service for testing and then compiles results and analytical data into a slick, branded presentation that is sent back to the customer to study. If these services were performed in the traditional setting of a doctor’s office, the customer would be treated as a patient and would therefore be afforded commensurate protections and have expectations of privacy and informed consent for the collection, use, and storage of their genetic material. In the retail DNA testing service business, however, the duty owed to consumers is more dubious and the practices of companies less closely supervised or disclosed. As the popularity and prevalence of these tests continues, the FTC will likely look to standardize and investigate business practices of these companies: Senator Calls on FTC to Investigate DNA Ancestry Companies
- Use of consent decrees: The public and courts are taking a closer look at the often widespread use of settlement agreements by regulatory entities. The FTC typically uses these in enforcement actions in the data-privacy arena when companies experience breaches that puts consumer information security at risk. Consumers having their data stolen in cybersecurity compromises of payment systems or other retail financial data records. Settlement agreements and consent decrees are meant to apply to individual companies in federal-level, case-specific circumstances only, but the legal precedent has evolved for this common law practice to be potentially applied to establish liability under state law as well. In the continued use of consent decrees, the FTC needs to elucidate clearly what standards apply to constitute a violation and when and where liability may exist: Federal Court’s Embrace Of FTC Data-Breach Settlements As ‘Common Law’ Treads On Due Process
- Venue shopping for overlapping antitrust review: As noted in this post, major merger and acquisition activity is at a high pitch in the markets right now. Many large companies are seeking to merge with or acquire another and in lots of cases, regulatory review is exhaustive and detailed. Regulators seek concessions, order sales or exclusions to assets, delay transactions, and influence deals in both the press and Congress. In this intense environment, companies looking to merge with or acquire another approach these transactions hoping for the lightest regulatory touch possible. As there are overlapping supervisory schemes, companies can attempt to shop for the friendliest regulator who might green-light the planned transaction. The FTC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) both conduct antitrust reviews. The perception in the marketplace is that the FTC review may be easier to pass or less burdensome in terms of settlement requirements than that of the DOJ. Therefore some large companies – such as CVS in its planned deal with Aetna – would prefer to be subject to the FTC to improve their odds of passing muster: CVS likely wants FTC antitrust review, not Justice Department, of Aetna deal
- Occupational licensing reform: Portability of occupational licenses – such as those required for nurses and accountants – has long-been a challenging political and business issue. States have wildly varying educational and experiential standards for achieving and maintaining these licenses, often making it very hard for professionals who need them to work to move between states that have differing licensure requirements. Military spouses in particular often find themselves shut out of work due to family relocations. On the other end, consumers could be potentially harmed due to unmet expectations for professional service standards in states where the licensing schemes are more lax or supervisory enforcement is inadequate compared to others. Short of a concerted effort by multiple individual states, there is an authority vacuum in the task of making a coherent and coordinated system out of this patchwork of rules, tests, and qualifications. The FTC could be the appropriate regulator to intercede in these circumstances and create a reformed federal unifying system that would function to provide access to work as well as protect consumers’ interests: The Onerous, Arbitrary, Unaccountable World of Occupational Licensing
- Net neutrality: Finally, nearly any discussion of US federal regulatory compliance hot topics at the end of 2017 is incomplete without mention of one of the biggest themes of the time, net neutrality. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pulling back from rule enforcement on net neutrality, both the FCC and the public expect the FTC to take up a more prominent role. The obvious areas where the FTC would have jurisdiction would be those concerning information security, principally data privacy, as well as competitive practices of service providers as well as other digital companies. Time will tell what approach the FTC intends to take in filling this enforcement void: After Net Neutrality: The FTC Is The Sheriff Of Tech Again. Is It Up To The Task?
Be sure to check back next week for a round-up on SEC regulatory compliance.