FTC’s Plea To Academia: Keep Protecting Consumers

The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington.

The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP File Photo

The outgoing chief technologist asked researchers to study ads, labels and other consumer issues.

The federal government needs more research on how effectively it protects consumers, a top technologist thinks.

By conducting studies on policy governing consumer products, researchers can help the Federal Trade Commission understand how its purview over topics such as privacy notices and ads actually makes customers safer, FTC Chief Technologist Lorrie Cranor wrote in a recent blog post.

As she ends her one year as chief technologist, Cranor asked researchers to examine several topics including the methods companies use to disclose their practices to consumers and to share those studies directly with FTC.

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For instance, the FTC Act requires ads to disclose "clearly and conspicuously"if they're making misleading claims, and their method of communicating that may vary depending on the industry, such as "clothing care, telemarketing, business opportunities and franchises, financial transactions, funeral services, and privacy."

Disclosure studies that reveal what kinds of disclosures are currently being used and how effective those notices are would be particularly useful to FTC staff, Cranor wrote.

That research might also be of general interest; for example, it might illuminate the "advantages and disadvantages of concise disclosures, icons, symbols and badges, as opposed to more detailed disclosures."

Cranor also asked for researchers' help in studying privacy and security policies; new practices in advertising and marketing, including faking online reviews and scam ads; new ways to share money including "virtual currencies, marketplace and peer-to-peer lending, and mobile wallets"; and the ways some fraud schemes target specific communities, such as older adults or minorities.

FTC's Office of Technology Research and Investigation also wants to know how it can use new technology to conduct its own research, potentially by using systems to "automate the detection of fraud, detect various forms of tracking and targeting, detect discrimination in algorithms, and identify vulnerable [internet of things] devices."