The British Post Office scandal was a failure of both technology and human systems. The software didn’t work, but too many people thought that whatever the computer said had to be right. This has several lessons for us about trust in computer and AI systems as well as the need for strong institutions and media.
Don’t believe the hype.
The undeniable fact is that the FTC has racked up a long list of victories over corporate abuses, like busting a nationwide, decades-long fraud that tricked people into paying for “free” tax preparation.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, so many of the actions the FTC has brought are still pending. But these actions are significant. In tandem with the Department of Justice, it is suing over fake apartment listings, blocking noncompete clauses, targeting fake online reviews, and going after gig work platforms for ripping off their workers.
Companies that abuse our privacy and trust are being hit with massive fines: $520 million for Epic’s tricks to get kids to spend money online, $20 million to punish Microsoft for spying on kids who use Xboxes, and a $25 million fine against Amazon for capturing voice recordings of kids and storing kids’ location data.
The FTC is using its authority to investigate many forms of digital deception, from deceptive and fraudulent online ads to the use of cloud computing to lock in business customers to data brokers’ sale of our personal information.
And of course, the FTC is targeting anticompetitive mergers, like Nvidia’s attempted takeover of ARM - which has the immediate effect of preventing an anticompetitive merger and the long-term benefit of deterring future attempts at similar oligopolistic mergers. They’ve also targeted private equity “rollups,” which combine dozens or hundreds of smaller companies into a monopoly with pricing power over its customers and the whip hand over its workers. These kinds of rollups are all too common, and destructive of offline and online services alike.
From Right to Repair to Click to Cancel to fines for deceptive UI (“dark patterns”), the FTC has taken up many of the issues we’ve fought for over the years. So the argument that the FTC is a do-nothing agency wasting our time with grandstanding stunts is just factually wrong. As recently as December 2023, the FTC and DOJ chalked up ten major victories.
But this “win/loss ratio” accounting also misses the point. Even if the outcome isn’t guaranteed, this FTC refuses to turn a blind eye to abuses of the American public.
What’s more, the FTC collaborated with the DOJ on new merger guidelines that spell out what kinds of mergers are likely to be legal. These are the most comprehensive, future-looking guidelines in generations, and they tee up enforcement actions for this FTC and its successors for many years to come.
The FTC is also seeking to revive existing laws that have lane dormant for too long. . As John Mark Newman explains, this FTC has cannily filed cases that reassert its right to investigate “competing” companies with interlocking directorates.
Newman also praises the FTC for “supercharging student interest in the field,” with law schools seeing surging interest in antitrust courses and a renaissance in law review articles about antitrust enforcement.
The FTC is not alone in this. Its colleagues in the DOJ’s antitrust division have their own long list of victories.
But the most important victory for America’s antitrust enforcers is what doesn’t happen. Across the economy and every sector, corporate leaders are backing away from merger-driven growth and predatory pricing, deterred from violating the law by the knowledge that the generations-long period of tolerance for lawless corporate abuse is coming to a close.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on the Ninth Circuit to rule that California’s Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC) violates the First Amendment, while not casting doubt on well-written data privacy laws. EFF filed an amicus brief in the case NetChoice v. Bonta, along with the Center for Democracy & Technology.
A lower court already ruled the law is likely unconstitutional. EFF agrees, but we asked the appeals court to chart a narrower path. EFF argued the AADC’s age estimation scheme and vague terms that describe amorphous “harmful content” render the entire law unconstitutional. But the lower court also incorrectly suggested that many foundational consumer privacy principles cannot pass First Amendment scrutiny. That is a mistake that EFF asked the Ninth Circuit to fix.
In late 2022, California passed the AADC with the goal of protecting children online. It has many data privacy provisions that EFF would like to see in a comprehensive federal privacy bill, like data minimization, strong limits on the processing of geolocation data, regulation of dark patterns, and enforcement of privacy policies.
Government should provide such privacy protections to all people. The protections in the AADC, however, are only guaranteed to children. And to offer those protections to children but not adults, technology companies are strongly incentivized to “estimate the age” to their entire user base—children and adults alike. While the method is not specified, techniques could include submitting a government ID or a biometric scan of your face. In addition, technology companies are required to assess their products to determine if they are designed to expose children to undefined “harmful content” and determine what is in the undefined “best interest of children.”
In its brief, EFF argued that the AADC’s age estimation scheme raises the same problems as other age verification laws that have been almost universally struck down, often with help from EFF. The AADC burdens adults’ and children’s access to protected speech and frustrates all users’ right to speak anonymously online. In addition, EFF argued that the vague terms offer no clear standards, and thus give government officials too much discretion in deciding what conduct is forbidden, while incentivizing platforms to self-censor given uncertainty about what is allowed.
“Many internet users will be reluctant to provide personal information necessary to verify their ages, because of reasonable doubts regarding the security of the services, and the resulting threat of identity theft and fraud,” EFF wrote.
Because age estimation is essential to the AADC, the entire law should be struck down for that reason alone, without assessing the privacy provisions. EFF asked the court to take that narrow path.
If the court instead chooses to address the AADC’s privacy protections, EFF cautioned that many of the principles reflected in those provisions, when stripped of the unconstitutional censorship provisions and vague terms, could survive intermediate scrutiny. As EFF wrote:
“This Court should not follow the approach of the district court below. It narrowly focused on California’s interest in blocking minors from harmful content. But the government often has several substantial interests, as here: not just protection of information privacy, but also protection of free expression, information security, equal opportunity, and reduction of deceptive commercial speech. The privacy principles that inform AADC’s consumer data privacy provisions are narrowly tailored to these interests.”
EFF has a long history of supporting well-written privacy laws against First Amendment attacks. The AADC is not one of them. We have filed briefs supporting laws that protect video viewing history, biometric data, and other internet records. We have advocated for a federal law to protect reproductive health records. And we have written extensively on the need for a strong federal privacy law.