FTC Commissioner Calls For Big Data Reform


By Casey Ek
4 February 2016

WASHINGTON–On Tuesday, while the European Commission hashed out data flow legislation with The Federal Trade Commission across the Atlantic, Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny delved into the emerging issues of information and technological innovation at the Brookings Institution.

Since being sworn into the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust division in Apr of 2014, McSweeny has tackled companies like Google and the technology they are employing. On Tuesday she explored some key digital issues we will face in the 21st century. One of the “critically important and very complex” issues she described was discrimination that came not from humans, but from computer algorithms.

“This includes ads for staplers being priced differently based on how far you are away from a Staple’s and women not seeing career coaching ads because they’re seeing a lot of other stuff not related to careers at all,” McSweeny said. “Almost any sensible person in the room would say that’s a problematic result.”

In an era in which more and more of our information is being stored and transferred online, according to McSweeny, reaching trans-Atlantic data transfer agreements with the European counterparts to the U.S. is becoming an increasingly nuanced task.

Since Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels, Europe has voiced its concern

FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny at the Brookings Institute Photo by Casey EK

over United States’ data policies. Discrimination, McSweeny said, is not the only issue with which both the FTC and Europe are concerned.

“In order to protect consumers who are using more and more commercial products that are sharing more and more of their information, more and more of their data, we need to be very careful not to do anything that weakens the encryption of our technologies,” McSweeny Said.

Since whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed how the U.S. government is using meta data for surveilence not only of its own citizens, but also citizens around the world, encryption technologies have been a growing international concern.

In her talk, which drew 100 guests, McSweeny not only pointed to some of the problems of the digital age but also raised questions of U.S. data reform as well.

“Consumers may not adopt new technology if they feel they cannot trust it. We have to give ourselves space, step back and ask why that is happening, McSweeny said. “We have to ask ourselves, what is the responsibility of companies using data analytics? Do they need to have data ethics by design?”

Europe, with its digital single market, has been asking these questions for some time. Since the initial talks of Safe Harbor, the trans-Atlantic data transfer deal between the U.S. and Europe, representatives from both sides have been hashing out issues of privacy and surveillance. The questions of privacy and security are not getting easier with the internet of things, McSweeny said, but she remains optimistic about the course of big technology.

“It’s probably true—technology created the problems, and now we’re relying on technology to fix them,”she said. “We need to start the conversation about data around a lot of the real good and promise of it.”

She went on to describe several technologies that protect citizens’ privacy, such as “Robo Killer,” an application that screens out automated telemarketing calls. Beyond technologies, though, McSweeny stated that more technologists in government would better serve citizens.

“I don’t know how to code,” McSweeny said. “A lot of these technology issues are incredibly technical, so that’s why we need people informing our policy-makers”

As the FTC continues to work with Europe on the so-called “Safe Harbor 2.0,” McSweeny will continue to work for competition and consumer protection, she said.  Working for fair, safe markets is a top priority for the FTC, according to McSweeny.

The Obama administration, through its Open Data Initiative, has made strides in opening up government data to consumers, McSweeny said. Several policy differences between Europe and the U.S make the most recent data deal with Europe complicated, she noted as she acknowledged that the fight for a perfect internet space for both companies and consumers is far from over.

“We’re working really hard amongst our counterparts in Europe. What we do need to be able to talk about are the areas in common ground,” McSweeny said. “Consumers are probably best served with as many cops on the beat as possible.”



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