Josh Wright’s Unfinished Legacy: Reforming FTC Consumer Protection Enforcement

totmauthor —  26 August 2015

by Berin Szoka, President, TechFreedom

Josh Wright will doubtless be remembered for transforming how FTC polices competition. Between finally defining Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC), and his twelve dissents and multiple speeches about competition matters, he re-grounded competition policy in the error-cost framework: weighing not only costs against benefits, but also the likelihood of getting it wrong against the likelihood of getting it right.

Yet Wright may be remembered as much for what he started as what he finished: reforming the Commission’s Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) work. His consumer protection work is relatively slender: four dissents on high tech matters plus four relatively brief concurrences and one dissent on more traditional advertising substantiation cases. But together, these offer all the building blocks of an economic, error-cost-based approach to consumer protection. All that remains is for another FTC Commissioner to pick up where Wright left off.

Apple: Unfairness & Cost-Benefit Analysis

In January 2014, Wright issued a blistering, 17 page dissent from the Commission’s decision to bring, and settle, an enforcement action against Apple regarding the design of its app store. Wright dissented, not from the conclusion necessarily, but from the methodology by which the Commission arrived there. In essence, he argued for an error-cost approach to unfairness:

The Commission, under the rubric of “unfair acts and practices,” substitutes its own judgment for a private firm’s decisions as to how to design its product to satisfy as many users as possible, and requires a company to revamp an otherwise indisputably legitimate business practice. Given the apparent benefits to some consumers and to competition from Apple’s allegedly unfair practices, I believe the Commission should have conducted a much more robust analysis to determine whether the injury to this small group of consumers justifies the finding of unfairness and the imposition of a remedy.

…. although Apple’s allegedly unfair act or practice has harmed some consumers, I do not believe the Commission has demonstrated the injury is substantial. More importantly, any injury to consumers flowing from Apple’s choice of disclosure and billing practices is outweighed considerably by the benefits to competition and to consumers that flow from the same practice.

The majority insisted that the burden on consumers or Apple from its remedy “is de minimis,” and therefore “it was unnecessary for the Commission to undertake a study of how consumers react to different disclosures before issuing its complaint against Apple, as Commissioner Wright suggests.”

Wright responded: “Apple has apparently determined that most consumers do not want to experience excessive disclosures or to be inconvenienced by having to enter their passwords every time they make a purchase.” In essence, he argued, that the FTC should not presume to know better than Apple how to manage the subtle trade-offs between convenience and usability.

Wright was channeling Hayek’s famous quip: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” The last thing the FTC should be doing is designing digital products — even by hovering over Apple’s shoulder.

The Data Broker Report

Wright next took the Commission to task for the lack of economic analysis in its May 2013 report, “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” In just four footnotes, Wright extended his analysis of Apple. For example:

Footnote 85: Commissioner Wright agrees that Congress should consider legislation that would provide for consumer access to the information collected by data brokers. However, he does not believe that at this time there is enough evidence that the benefits to consumers of requiring data brokers to provide them with the ability to opt out of the sharing of all consumer information for marketing purposes outweighs the costs of imposing such a restriction. Finally… he believes that the Commission should engage in a rigorous study of consumer preferences sufficient to establish that consumers would likely benefit from such a portal prior to making such a recommendation.

Footnote 88: Commissioner Wright believes that in enacting statutes such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Congress undertook efforts to balance [costs and benefits]. In the instant case, Commissioner Wright is wary of extending FCRA-like coverage to other uses and categories of information without first performing a more robust balancing of the benefits and costs associated with imposing these requirements

The Internet of Things Report

This January, in a 4-page dissent from the FTC’s staff report on “The Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World,” Wright lamented that the report neither represented serious economic analysis of the issues discussed nor synthesized the FTC’s workshop on the topic:

A record that consists of a one-day workshop, its accompanying public comments, and the staff’s impressions of those proceedings, however well-intended, is neither likely to result in a representative sample of viewpoints nor to generate information sufficient to support legislative or policy recommendations.

His attack on the report’s methodology was blistering:

The Workshop Report does not perform any actual analysis whatsoever to ensure that, or even to give a rough sense of the likelihood that the benefits of the staff’s various proposals exceed their attendant costs. Instead, the Workshop Report merely relies upon its own assertions and various surveys that are not necessarily representative and, in any event, do not shed much light on actual consumer preferences as revealed by conduct in the marketplace…. I support the well-established Commission view that companies must maintain reasonable and appropriate security measures; that inquiry necessitates a cost-benefit analysis. The most significant drawback of the concepts of “security by design” and other privacy-related catchphrases is that they do not appear to contain any meaningful analytical content.

Ouch.

Nomi: Deception & Materiality Analysis

In April, Wright turned his analytical artillery from unfairness to deception, long the more uncontroversial half of UDAP. In a five-page dissent, Wright accused the Commission of essentially dispensing with the core limiting principle of the 1983 Deception Policy Statement: materiality. As Wright explained:

The materiality inquiry is critical because the Commission’s construct of “deception” uses materiality as an evidentiary proxy for consumer injury…. Deception causes consumer harm because it influences consumer behavior — that is, the deceptive statement is one that is not merely misleading in the abstract but one that causes consumers to make choices to their detriment that they would not have otherwise made. This essential link between materiality and consumer injury ensures the Commission’s deception authority is employed to deter only conduct that is likely to harm consumers and does not chill business conduct that makes consumers better off.

As in Apple, Wright did not argue that there might not be a role for the FTC; merely that the FTC had failed to justify bringing, let alone settling, an enforcement action without establishing that the key promise at issue — to provide in-store opt-out — was material.

The Chamber Speech: A Call for Economic Analysis

In May, Wright gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce on “How to Regulate the Internet of Things Without Harming its Future: Some Do’s and Don’ts”:

Perhaps it is because I am an economist who likes to deal with hard data, but when it comes to data and privacy regulation, the tendency to rely upon anecdote to motivate policy is a serious problem. Instead of developing a proper factual record that documents cognizable and actual harms, regulators can sometimes be tempted merely to explore anecdotal and other hypothetical examples and end up just offering speculations about the possibility of harm.

And on privacy in particular:

What I have seen instead is what appears to be a generalized apprehension about the collection and use of data — whether or not the data is actually personally identifiable or sensitive — along with a corresponding, and arguably crippling, fear about the possible misuse of such data.  …. Any sensible approach to regulating the collection and use of data will take into account the risk of abuses that will harm consumers. But those risks must be weighed with as much precision as possible, as is the case with potential consumer benefits, in order to guide sensible policy for data collection and use. The appropriate calibration, of course, turns on our best estimates of how policy changes will actually impact consumers on the margin….

Wright concedes that the “vast majority of work that the Consumer Protection Bureau performs simply does not require significant economic analysis because they involve business practices that create substantial risk of consumer harm but little or nothing in the way of consumer benefits.” Yet he notes that the Internet has made the need for cost-benefit analysis far more acute, at least where conduct is ambiguous as its effects on consumers, as in Apple, to avoid “squelching innovation and depriving consumers of these benefits.”

The Wrightian Reform Agenda for UDAP Enforcement

Wright left all the building blocks his successor will need to bring “Wrightian” reform to how the Bureau of Consumer Protection works:

  1. Wright’s successor should work to require economic analysis for consent decrees, as Wright proposed in his last major address as a Commissioner. BE might not to issue a statement at all in run-of-the-mill deception cases, but it should certainly have to say something about unfairness cases.
  2. The FTC needs to systematically assess its enforcement process to understand the incentives causing companies to settle UDAP cases nearly every time — resulting in what Chairman Ramirez and Commissioner Brill frequently call the FTC’s “common law of consent decrees.”
  3. As Wright says in his Nomi dissent “While the Act does not set forth a separate standard for accepting a consent decree, I believe that threshold should be at least as high as for bringing the initial complaint.” This point should be uncontroversial, yet the Commission has never addressed it. Wright’s successor (and the FTC) should, at a minimum, propose a standard for settling cases.
  4. Just as Josh succeeded in getting the FTC to issue a UMC policy statement, his successor should re-assess the FTC’s two UDAP policy statements. Wright’s successor needs to make the case for finally codifying the DPS — and ensuring that the FTC stops bypassing materiality, as in Nomi.
  5. The Commission should develop a rigorous methodology for each of the required elements of unfairness and deception to justify bringing cases (or making report recommendations). This will be a great deal harder than merely attacking the lack of such methodology in dissents.
  6. The FTC has, in recent years, increasingly used reports to make de facto policy — by inventing what Wright calls, in his Chamber speech, “slogans and catchphrases” like “privacy by design,” and then using them as boilerplate requirements for consent decrees; by pressuring companies into adopting the FTC’s best practices; by calling for legislation; and so on. At a minimum, these reports must be grounded in careful economic analysis.
  7. The Commission should apply far greater rigor in setting standards for substantiating claims about health benefits. In two dissents, Genelink et al and HCG Platinum, Wright demolished arguments for a clear, bright line requiring two randomized clinical trials, and made the case for “a more flexible substantiation requirement” instead.

Conclusion: Big Shoes to Fill

It’s a testament to Wright’s analytical clarity that he managed to say so much about consumer protection in so few words. That his UDAP work has received so little attention, relative to his competition work, says just as much about the far greater need for someone to do for consumer protection what Wright did for competition enforcement and policy at the FTC.

Wright’s successor, if she’s going to finish what Wright started, will need something approaching Wright’s sheer intellect, his deep internalization of the error-costs approach, and his knack for brokering bipartisan compromise around major issues — plus the kind of passion for UDAP matters Wright had for competition matters. And, of course, that person needs to be able to continue his legacy on competition matters…

Compared to the difficulty of finding that person, actually implementing these reforms may be the easy part.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. The essence of Josh Wright’s FTC tenure was to ensure that benefits outweigh costs; the rest is commentary « Truth on the Market - August 27, 2015

    […] its antitrust decision-making, its record in using economics in other areas is decidedly mixed, as Berin points out. But even in competition policy, the Commission frequently uses economics — but it’s […]