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On October 20, the FTC voted 3-1 at an open meeting to publish two rules for comments: the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on Junk Fees (see here) and the ANPRM on Fake Reviews and Endorsements (see here). The first ANPRM addresses junk fees that are charged for goods or services that have little or no added value to the consumer. The ANPRM seeks comments on the prevalence of junk fees and the consumer harms arising from junk fee practices, among other topics. The second APNRM initiates a rulemaking proceeding addressing fake reviews and other endorsements, which can cheat consumers and honest businesses alike. The ANPRM seeks comment on the prevalence of fake and deceptive reviews and the consumer harms arising from them, among other things.
At the start of the meeting, members of the public provided feedback on the Commission’s work with some members of the public expressing concerns about how junk fees are harming consumers and businesses. Others also expressed consumers’ frustration with hidden fees that are added to bills that were not advertised up front. Regarding fake advertisements, some emphasized how consumers rely on reviews and how fake reviews can harm consumers and sellers. Commissioner Wilson, the sole ‘no’ vote on both measures, noted that the APNRM on junk fees “is sweeping in its breadth,” and said the APNRM potentially contradicts existing laws and rules, among other things. Chair Kahn, Commissioner Slaughter, and Commissioner Bedoya all voted yes for both measures. Regarding the junk fees ANPR, Commissioner Slaughter mentioned that she does not consider this to be “obscure” and expressed her support for the ANPRM, emphasizing that markets cannot function effectively with junk fees. Commissioner Wilson noted that she agrees that “fake and deceptive reviews are unlawful,” but does not believe public comment should be sought for this proposal because “the Commission already has a multi-pronged strategy in place to combat this issue,” such as FTC-published endorsement guides. Additionally, in October 2021, the Commission issued a notice of penalty offenses, which is explained in the ANPRM, and may enable the Commission to obtain civil penalties from marketers that use fake reviews.
On September 8, the FTC hosted a forum regarding its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on commercial surveillance and data security practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the ANPR was issued in August to solicit public comment on “the harms stemming from commercial surveillance and whether new rules are needed to protect people’s privacy and information.” The ANPR noted that there is increasing evidence that some surveillance-based services may be addictive to children and lead to a wide variety of mental health and social harms. The forum featured remarks by FTC Chair Lina M. Khan, Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, as well as a staff presentation, two panel discussions, and comments from the public. Chair Khan noted in her remarks that the discussion and comments at the forum will be critical in determining the evidentiary basis for proceeding with a rulemaking and whether legal requirements needed for crafting any particular type of rule. However, some observers expressed concern that the FTC’s ANPR could undermine efforts to pass federal privacy legislation. Slaughter noted in her remarks that she “support[s] strong federal privacy legislation, but until there’s a law on the books, the commission has a duty to use all the tools we have to investigate and address unlawful behavior in the market.” Commissioners Slaughter and Bedoya also expressed the need for public engagement to understand commercial surveillance.
The first panel focused on industry perspectives on commercial surveillance and data security. When asked about some of the best practices or potential business models developed by businesses to mitigate consumer harm and protect data, a panelist noted that there are many approaches underway, but the guiding principle is that the process of documentation supports transparency by prompting processes and critical thinking of each step in the mission learning lifecycle. One panelist expressed concerns about businesses tracking personal data, stating that because retailers collect information about their customers when they make purchases online and may recommend related offerings, regulators “should not interfere with these direct relationships.” Another panelist warned against treating all data collection and processes equally, stressing that the FTC should use its enforcement tools against third parties.
The second panel featured consumer advocates discussing interests, concerns, risks, and harms related to commercial surveillance, in addition to mitigating consumer harms and protecting data. The advocates noted, among other things, that the FTC should impose heightened safeguards on sensitive data, such as precise location records and information associated with children. Additionally, the panelists advocated for establishing a regulation and broadening the FTC’s Section 5 unfairness authority that limits widescale tracking. Specifically, one panelist discussed how the FTC should approach a data minimization rule under Section 5, recommending that such a rule should ban secondary use and third-party disclosures. In regard to combating discrimination through data collection and advertising, a panelist noted that shifting data protection responsibilities from individuals onto companies could play an important part to ensure that data-driven algorithms that deliver ads or content are not discriminating against consumers.
On August 23, the FTC announced that it is soliciting additional public feedback on the effects digital advertising and marketing messages have on children. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in May the FTC announced that it is seeking comment on its notice of proposed changes to its “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” (Endorsement Guides), which includes the addition of a new section highlighting special concerns related to child-directed advertising. Under the Endorsement Guides, which were enacted in 1980 and amended in 2009, advertisers are required “to be upfront with consumers and clearly disclose unexpected material connections between endorsers and a seller of an advertised product.” The Commission also noted that, in conjunction with the notice, it is hosting a public event on October 19 to address topics including “children’s capacity at different ages and developmental stages to recognize and understand advertising content and distinguish it from other content,” and the “need for and efficacy of disclosures as a solution for children of different ages, including the format, timing, placement, wording, and frequency of disclosures.” Comments are due by November 18 “to accommodate those who wish to provide input on the topics discussed at the October digital advertising event.”
On May 19, the FTC announced it is considering changes to strengthen its advertising guidelines to address fake and manipulative reviews, as well as concerns over inadequate disclosure tools. The Commission unanimously voted to submit a notice of proposed changes to its “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” (Endorsement Guides), which were enacted in 1980 and amended in 2009. Under the Endorsement Guides, advertisers are required “to be upfront with consumers and clearly disclose unexpected material connections between endorsers and a seller of an advertised product.” In February 2020, the FTC issued a request for comments on, among other things, whether the Endorsement Guides are effective at addressing concerns in the marketplace, as well as issues related to social media disclosures, incentive reviews, and affiliate links. According to the Commission’s announcement, the proposed changes (i) warn “social media platforms that some of their tools for endorsers are inadequate and may open them up to liability”; (ii) clarify that the Endorsement Guides cover fake reviews; (iii) add a new principle, which provides that “in procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, or editing consumer reviews, advertisers should not distort or misrepresent what consumers think of their products”; (iv) clarify that social media tags are covered by the Endorsement Guides; (v) modify “the definition of ‘endorsers’ to bring virtual influencers—that is, computer-generated fictional characters—under the guides”; (v) provide an example addressing the microtargeting of a discrete group of consumers; and (vi) introduce a new section addressing concerns related to child-directed advertising.
A public event will be hosted by the FTC on October 19 to address topics including “children’s capacity at different ages and developmental stages to recognize and understand advertising content and distinguish it from other content,” and the “need for and efficacy of disclosures as a solution for children of different ages, including the format, timing, placement, wording, and frequency of disclosures.”
On October 13, the FTC issued a warning to more than 700 companies, including top advertisers, leading retailers, top consumer product companies, and major advertising agencies. The warning stated that the companies may face fines over misleading online endorsements. Citing the “rise of social media,” which has “blurred the line between authentic content and advertising,” the FTC used its Penalty Offense Authority to place companies on notice that they could face significant civil penalties of up to $43,792 per violation should a company “engage in conduct that it knows has been found unlawful in a previous FTC administrative order, other than a consent order.” The notice outlines several practices determined by the FTC to be unfair or deceptive in previous administrative cases, such as: “falsely claiming an endorsement by a third party; misrepresenting whether an endorser is an actual, current, or recent user; using an endorsement to make deceptive performance claims; failing to disclose an unexpected material connection with an endorser; and misrepresenting that the experience of endorsers represents consumers’ typical or ordinary experience.” Additional FTC resources are available to help companies follow the law when advertising products and services.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, earlier this month the FTC sent a similar notice to for-profit higher education institutions under the Penalty Offense Authority, advising against making false promises about their graduates’ job and earnings prospects.