FTC Reform Bill Markup Teed Up

The House Energy & Commerce Committee on Thursday (July 14) will mark up HR 5510, the FTC Process and Transparency Reform Act of 2016, that would clarify what conduct the Federal Trade Commission can cite for unfairness under its authority to go after unfair and deceptive practices and how it determines that to be the case. The Judiciary Committee is also considering the FTC reform bill.

The Committee was trying to get through eight bills in its unusual Wednesday (July 13) mark-up delayed several times for floor votes, but only got through seven, leaving the controversial FTC bill--17 amendments in the queue--for last.

Democrats argue it is a way to weaken, if not gut, consumer protections. In fact, at least one Democrat in an FCC oversight hearing this week pointed out that while Republicans were arguing that the FTC-like authority over broadband privacy was a model the FCC should adopt for protecting consumer privacy, elsewhere they were trying to weaken that FTC regulatory authority.

Currently, the law states that: "The Commission shall have no authority...to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition."

The bill would define what is substantial injury for consumers and how the FTC will determine whether a practice is likely to cause that harm.

It also puts time limits on some consent agreements--deals the FTC strikes with companies to avoid lawsuits--and on inactive investigations.

There is also a sunshine provision--similar to one proposed for the FCC--that allows a bipartisan majority of commissioners to meet in nonpublic settings to discuss official business so long as not items are voted, no other official action is taken, and an attorney from the general counsel's office is present, and that a summary of the meeting is disclosed to the public.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.