CES 2020: A Fireside Chat With FTC Chair Joseph Simons

CTA chair/chief executive Gary Shapiro held court with two high-level government leaders: FTC chair Joseph Simons and FCC chair Ajit Pai, in two separate, 30-minute CES sessions. Simons first took the stage and described the Federal Trade Commission’s mission as two-fold: competition and consumer protection. “As we get further into the digital age, privacy concerns are becoming more important,” he said, noting that the FTC Act governing these concerns is 100 years old. “It’s time for Congress to adopt something more modern.”

Simons (below left with Shapiro) noted that regulation going forward “depends on how state and federal laws evolve.” “The states could adopt something relatively consistent that doesn’t have conflicting requirements,” he said. “But if not, a federal statue could avoid that issue.”

The FTC is discussing with Congress being able to create privacy legislation in a way that doesn’t reduce competition or entrench the Big Tech platforms and disadvantage smaller players, he added.

Simons noted that the FTC has been enforcing privacy regulations “very resolutely” despite the obstacles. The FTC created best practices of a published privacy policy, he said, which is now the standard. “If you deviate from this published policy, we can launch an enforcement action,” he said. “That was an adaptation to privacy concerns and the primary vehicle we’ve used in the last 20 years.”

The FTC, which was ranked No. 2 as the best place to work among the government’s mid-sized agencies, is “very productive and high functioning with high morale,” said Simons.

He also pointed out that the FTC set up a technology enforcement division to investigate Big Tech platforms. “They’ve become so large and consequential that as an antitrust enforcer, we worry about that,” he said. But he stressed that, “the FTC doesn’t go after companies just because they’re big and successful.”

“They have to do something that is anti-competitive, not competitive,” he explained. “We encourage firms to compete and become successful, maybe to monopolizing the market legally. We don’t break up companies because they’re big. They have to harm consumers.”

The settlements with Google and Facebook, said Simons, “imposed requirements that are far and away greater than what the law requires, including transparency requirements.” “Facebook and Google know we’re paying attention,” he said. “If they continue to do what they were doing in the past and violate privacy laws, they can expect even more serious repercussions.”

“My big mantra since I got to the FTC is vigorous enforcement,” he continued. “We did it last year and we will do it this year in a very bipartisan way.”

For 5G, said Simons, “fiber deployment is critical and I don’t want it to be a bottleneck. Making it cheaper and easier is one way to make it happen. I also made it possible for non-traditional players to compete in the space. We also want a consistent, easy-to-understand set of regulations. This is a roadblock around the world. The more disparate national, state, city regulations are, the harder it is to build these networks.”

The FTC also approved a three-digit national suicide hotline number, which was met with applause by the CES crowd.