May 30, 2001 5:25 PM PDT

Groups promote privacy to new FTC chair

The Federal Trade Commission is about to get a new chairman, and consumer advocates want privacy to be one of his top priorities.

Confirmed Friday, Timothy Muris is set to take office as head of the top consumer-protection agency as soon as next week. On Wednesday, an array of nongovernmental consumer groups--including Consumers Union and anti-spam company Junkbusters--sent Muris a letter, calling on him and the FTC to take specific steps to protect consumer privacy online and off.

"There are few issues of greater concern to consumers today than the protection of privacy," the groups wrote in their letter. "We believe it is critical for the success of the emerging online market for the commission to play an active role."

The letter comes after back-to-back decisions by the FTC not to take action on two separate investigations of privacy complaints against Amazon.com. In light of the decisions, the consumer groups felt they needed to put the issue to Muris right away, said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters.

"He may be in office on Monday, so it's certainly not too early" to send the letter, Catlett said. "We also have this example of the dysfunctionality of the FTC's enforcement mechanism, which we hope he will be able to improve."

FTC representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

On Thursday, the FTC notified Junkbusters and the Electronic Privacy Information Center that it ruled that Amazon did not deceive customers when it changed its privacy policy last year. The groups petitioned the FTC to review the change in a letter last December.

On Friday, the FTC sent a letter to Amazon's Alexa Internet division concerning an investigation of the data collected by Alexa. Although the FTC said the statements Alexa made about the data it collected were probably "deceptive," the commission decided not to take action against the company, citing revisions Alexa made to its privacy statement and a recent settlement of a related class-action suit.

In a separate letter sent to Muris on Wednesday, Catlett criticized the FTC's recent Amazon decisions. The FTC's decision to not take action against Amazon for changing its privacy policy was based on the company's statements about the policy. But the commission found in the Alexa case that the company likely deceived customers, meaning that it can't be trusted, Catlett wrote.

Catlett called on the FTC to require Amazon to undergo an audit of its privacy policies and practices. He also urged the commission to force Amazon to reveal to customers the private information it has collected about them and to delete it upon request.

"This is only one of many actions that we believe are necessary to give the American public confidence that they can participate in e-commerce without losing control of their personal data," Catlett wrote.

But the FTC already took a close look at Amazon's privacy policy and determined that it didn't need to conduct further investigations, said Amazon spokesman Bill Curry.

"We have one of the tightest policies out there," Curry said. "We're very explicit in our privacy policy about what we collect and how we use it, and we're faithful to it."

In their letter to Muris, which was co-signed by representatives of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the consumer advocates called on the incoming chairman and the FTC to make it easier for consumers to file privacy complaints and to notify consumers about how those complaints are resolved.

The consumer groups also asked the FTC to give annual reports to Congress on the number and type of privacy complaints they receive and the actions it takes on them.

Catlett said Muris' views on privacy are something of a mystery, given that he spoke little at his confirmation hearing about his stance on the issue.

"It's conceivable he may turn out to be more sympathetic of privacy than (outgoing FTC Chairman Robert) Pitofsky was," Catlett said. "It's up to him to demonstrate where he stands."

 

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