FTC Consumer Protection at 100: 1970s Redux or Protecting Markets to Protect Consumers?


Throughout most of the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC” or “Commission”) history, the agency has been condemned as ineffective. Indeed, the prestigious 1969 American Bar Association Report said that the FTC should either change or be abolished. The disastrous decade of the 1970s followed, in which the FTC tried to become the second most powerful legislature in Washington. The Commission then finally developed a bipartisan regulatory program, recognizing that the FTC was not the star player in the economy but had an important role in enforcing the rules that facilitate market interactions. Following the ABA report’s recommendation, the program’s consumer protection foundation was a systematic and aggressive attack on consumer fraud.

This Article discusses this modern FTC, providing details on programs involving fraud, conventional advertising, and privacy. We explain how, embracing a more limited role and recognizing its past mistakes, the FTC became one of the world’s most widely respected government agencies. Unfortunately, the agency has recently lost its way in regulating traditional advertising, threatening to restrict truthful information to consumers that is vital to the optimal performance of competitive markets. We also discuss the newest part of the FTC’s mission, protecting consumer privacy. The heart of the program has been to prevent harmful misuse of sensitive information, most notably the National Do Not Call Registry, one of the most popular government initiatives ever. In attempting to broaden the basis for protection of privacy, the agency currently threatens to impede rapidly evolving information technology markets.