FTC Shifts To Right

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-01-15

The Federal Trade Commission during the past few years has taken the lead among federal agencies in tussling with online privacy issues, but its aggressive stance may stall, or even be reversed, with the change in administrations.

It is widely believed that President-elect George W. Bush will choose Commissioner Orson Swindle to chair the commission. The Democrats will still have a 3-2 majority on the Commission until current Chairman Robert Pitofskys term expires in September. But Swindle, the most conservative commissioner, will have broad power to decide whether to hold meetings and what the meeting agendas will address, said Mary Gardiner Jones, who was a commissioner between 1964 and 1973 and who has been active in technology issues ever since.

She said the work at the FTC "almost came to a halt" when President Ronald Reagan installed Jim Miller as FTC chair. In addition, Bush has chosen Wendy Lee Gramm, a longtime inside-the-beltway partisan and wife of Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to manage the FTC transition. That means she will recruit replacements for many of the upper-level bureaucrats at the agency who are expected to leave when the new administration takes over.

Gramm has fashioned a career out of her intense distaste for government regulations. Currently, she is director of the Regulatory Studies Program at George Mason Universitys Mercatus Center, a research institution that casts a skeptical eye on the value of government regulation. Given Swindles and Gramms conservatism, Jones predicted the FTC will back away from privacy regulation, promoting instead industry self-regulation.

Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who until recently served as the chief privacy adviser to the Clinton administration, agreed. He hailed the FTC as a leader in the creation of privacy policy, and said the new administration "may be less aggressive about developing new codes of conduct as [privacy] problems arise."

The expected change in emphasis will also be felt on Capitol Hill, said Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "People are going to be looking at legislation with the thought that the FTC will change, and the change will be significant," he said. "No matter who the chair is, they will look at privacy differently from [current FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky]."

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