“The central role that digital tools will only continue to play invites us to consider whether we want to live in a society where firms can condition access to critical technologies and opportunities on users having to surrender to commercial surveillance,” Khan said during a keynote address at the Global Privacy Summit on Monday in Washington.
Khan’s remarks offer hints of how aggressively the agency may pursue privacy cases against tech companies after Democrats retake the majority at the agency.
The FTC has operated without a majority or full complement of commissioners for almost the entirety of President Biden’s term, creating a partisan deadlock that has hamstrung the agency’s ability to pursue more sweeping oversight of the tech sector. But that’s soon poised to change, with Alvaro Bedoya’s nomination recently clearing a Senate procedural hurdle.
Here are a few takeaways from Khan’s marquee address:
Khan sharply rebuked the tech industry’s data practices
Khan unleashed broadsides against the data collection practices that have become common in Silicon Valley.
“The general lack of legal limits on what types of information can be monetized has yielded a booming economy built around the buying and selling of this data,” she said, decrying what she called a business model that “seems to incentivize endless tracking and vacuuming up of users’ data.”
The comments by Khan, who rose to prominence as a leading critic of the tech giant’s alleged competitive abuses, marked some of her most expansive remarks on data privacy to date.
Khan said ‘notice and consent’ isn’t nearly enough
Khan issued a scathing indictment of the “notice and consent” model – the notion that companies’ primary responsibility is to notify users of their data collection practices and to attain their consent. “I’m concerned that the present market realities may render the notice and consent paradigm outdated and insufficient,” she said.
Instead, Khan suggested, regulators should consider whether more data collection practices should be restricted or prohibited altogether. Only taking notice and consent into account, she said, ends up “sidestepping more fundamental questions about whether certain types of data collection and processing should be permitted in the first place.”
Khan also noted that Congress “could also help usher in this type of new paradigm” by passing federal privacy legislation. Given that those efforts have been stagnant for years, the FTC’s enforcement of privacy will be particularly crucial.
FTC zeroing in on ‘dominant firms’
Without name-checking any particular industry giants, Khan said the agency’s plan is to “harness our scarce resources to maximize impact,” including by focusing on “dominant firms” and others “whose business practices cause widespread harm.” That means that under Khan, the FTC likely remains on a collision course with Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.
But the remarks also notably alluded to one of the agency’s biggest hurdles: a lack of money. Agency leaders including Khan have long complained that the FTC’s funding levels have hampered its ability to adequately enforce against an array of abuses, including on privacy.
Congressional Democrats last year were angling to give the FTC a historic funding boost for privacy enforcement by creating a new bureau at the agency, but the plans have been bogged down amid disagreements over broader social spending plans.
Regulators are looking for more tech chops
Kahn said the FTC is still looking to grow the tech expertise within its own ranks.
“We have already increased the number of technologists on our staff drawn from a diverse set of skill sets, including data scientists and engineers, user-design experts, and AI researchers, and we plan to continue building up this team,” she said.
Federal agencies have long struggled to attract and retain top technical expertise away from the tech industry, which can often lure away top talent with its deep pool of resources.
Our top tabs
European regulators plan to tack another antitrust charge on Apple
The new charge comes as part of an investigation triggered by a complaint from Spotify, Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee reports. It comes about a year after European regulators took aim at Apple’s music streaming business and accused the company of breaking E.U. competition laws. Apple denied the claim at the time.
“In addition to the music streaming investigation, Apple’s practices in e-books and its Apple Pay are also in the E.U. antitrust crosshairs,” Reuters writes. The European Commission declined to comment and Apple “had no immediate comment,” Reuters writes.
Facebook’s Ukrainian fact-checkers race to debunk propaganda, survive
Independent fact-checkers in Ukraine have long worked with Facebook to determine whether posts are false, prompting the social media network to decrease their visibility and add warning labels and explanations. But two groups that examine content in Ukraine have lost workers to the front lines, while other fact-checkers spend some time planning their escapes or taking cover amid violent moments, Naomi Nix reports.
Facebook parent Meta has “been providing significant resources to fact-checkers covering Eastern Europe to increase their capacity to help slow the spread of misinformation about the war in Ukraine and help ensure their safety,” Meta spokesperson Ayobami Olugbemiga said.
Employees can speak out about harassment and discrimination, Google says
Google said in a filing ahead of its annual general meeting that none of its employee agreements prohibit workers from speaking out about harassment and discrimination they faced at the company, Gerrit De Vynck reports for The Technology 202. Google previously said people were free to speak about harassment settlements they had with the tech giant, but the latest statement is the broadest and most clear the company has made to date.
The statement came as part of Google’s response to a shareholder proposal asking the company to be more clear about how it uses nondisclosure agreements in its employee contracts. The wording in Google’s filing aligns with the Silenced No More Act, a bill that was passed in California last year and prohibits companies from using NDAs to stop workers from speaking out about harassment and discrimination. Tech employees including former Pinterest worker and whistleblower Ifeomo Ozoma have for years tried to get tech companies to stop using NDAs to silence current and former employees.
Rant and rave
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s departure from Twitter’s board was the talk of the social media network, from Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal’s statement about it to the implications for the company.
Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier:
“There will be distractions ahead”
“Let’s tune out the noise”
— Sarah Frier (@sarahfrier) April 11, 2022
Big Technology’s Alex Kantrowitz:
Our colleague Will Oremus:
The fight playing out now is over whether people like Musk have any accountability at all for their actions, and can be held to any laws or norms or processes, or whether they have near-total impunity because they can simply buy out any institution that stands in their way.
— Will Oremus (@WillOremus) April 11, 2022
Inside the industry
- Apple chief executive Tim Cook and European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders speak at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit at 9:15 a.m. today.
- TikTok global chief security officer Roland Cloutier speaks at an event hosted by Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs today at 5 p.m.
- Microsoft president Brad Smith speaks at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
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