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Senate to Vet FTC Nominations

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing Tuesday afternoon (Nov. 15) on the renomination of Jon Leibowitz as commissioner and chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the nomination of Maureen Ohlhausen to fill an open Republican seat on the commission.

Leibowitz has been on the commission for the past seven-plus years, the last two-and-a-half as the Obama administration's chairman. Ohlhausen, filling the seat of Republican Bill Kovacic is the former FTC director of the office of policy and planning and spend a dozen years at the agency before exiting to join the law firm of Wilkinson Barker Knauer, where she has been a partner.

According to testimony for the hearing, Leibowitz said consumer privacy would continue to be a "major focus" of the commission. He also says he had heard the committee's concerns about a host of new tech privacy challenges, including mobile apps, flash cookies, geolocation and facial recognition software. He also talked about industrywide codes of conduct, which the FTC has encouraged, as well as the difficulty of protecting privacy when kids are getting more tech savvy than their parents.

For her part, Ohlhausen said that the challenge of data privacy and security were to help consumers without "diminishing the consumer benefits or hampering competition and industry innovation." She also said she was committed to strong antitrust enforcement.

Leibowitz signaled he expected to get some questions from the committee about its report on food marketing to kids, a report that he said has seen "dramatic improvements" following input from stakeholders.

That report has been a subject of heated debate on Capitol Hill. A joint hearing on the recommendations last month featured government officials, including David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau, explaining that the principles, announced last April, are only voluntary recommendations to Congress that industry can ignore if they chose, while legislators, primarily Republicans, countering that they represent Big Brother government intruding into meal planning for families and a focus on marketing, without scientific backing, rather than focusing on more physical activity.

Food marketers were breathing a little easier last month after Vladeck signaled the FTC was modifying some of the guidelines.

He said, for example, that after taking into account thousands of comments, the commission would not recommend to Congress that it generally expand those guidelines to marketing of foods to kids 12 through 17, as the original plan had proposed. Vladeck agreed that it is often tough to distinguish between marketing to teens and to a general or adult audience, a point industry marketers made in opposing expanding the age range. He also said the FTC does not think the guidelines should apply to sponsorships of sporting events, and that the commission does not plan to recommend that marketers remove branded characters from packaging that does not meet food guidelines. Those were all plusses for advertisers and media companies concerned the new voluntary guidelines could turn into regulations by proxy, and for Republican legislators, some of whom had called for rescinding the guidelines altogether.