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Chief of the FTC, the powerful consumer watchdog, is stepping down

FCC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez
Edith Ramirez in 2014
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said Friday that she will soon step down as head of the country’s most powerful consumer watchdog after serving more than three years in the role and another three years before that as a commissioner.

Ramirez is expected to serve in her current post until President-elect Donald Trump appoints a chair of his own, but said in an interview that she plans to depart the agency on Feb. 10. Analysts expect the sole Republican serving at the FTC, Maureen Ohlhausen, to step in as the panel’s next chairwoman.

Under Ramirez’s leadership, the FTC gained a reputation as a key technology regulator.

Although most people associate Volkswagen’s emissions software scandal with the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Volkswagen owners can credit the FTC for playing an “instrumental” role determining the amount of money VW will ultimately refund to consumers, Ramirez said.

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In recent years, the FTC has also cracked down on cellphone carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile, refunding, for example, a total of $170 million to Americans to make up for spammy third-party charges that customers never requested or signed up for.

The agency also pressured Apple and Amazon to change their billing practices, following a slew of consumer complaints that the companies had made it far too easy for in-app purchases to drive up credit card bills.

Ramirez also helped turn data security and hacking into a major regulatory issue for companies, going after Snapchat in 2014 for allowing information concerning 4.6 million account holders to leak. Similarly, the FTC’s lawsuit against hotel chain Wyndham Worldwide Corp. helped underscore that companies can be held responsible for being hacked after misleading customers about the security of their digital systems.

“Given the significant role technology plays in consumers’ lives, today we’ve placed an emphasis on ensuring that fundamental consumer protection rules apply in the digital sphere,” Ramirez said.

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Ramirez’s agency also published groundbreaking studies and guidelines on an emerging class of devices known as the Internet of Things, which promises to turn everyday objects into smart appliances. Other reports by the agency showed how companies could abuse customer data to discriminate, particularly against low-income consumers and minorities.

But the agency has faced criticism over the way it has handled other tech-related matters. Some, including a few of its own members, argued that the FTC failed to consider the potential benefits to consumers of certain practices it found unfair, such as Apple’s approach to in-app purchases.

“The unfairness standard places the burden on the commission to show the harms of those decisions outweigh the benefits,” FTC Commissioner Josh Wright said in a 2014 speech. Wright, a Republican, left the FTC in 2015 to become a law professor at George Mason University.

There was also a leaked staff memo written in 2013 showing that the FTC’s civil servants believed that Google had been behaving anti-competitively in certain ways, such as restricting advertisers from working with rival search engines. But senior officials, including Ramirez, balked at the prospect of a lengthy legal battle with the technology giant, preferring to shut the probe in exchange for Google’s commitment to change some of its practices.

The episode raised questions about the FTC’s willingness to take on the world’s most powerful tech companies, particularly on some of the biggest competition issues facing the industry.

Still, consumer advocates say Ramirez’s positive effects will be long-lasting.

“Edith Ramirez brought the FTC into the 21st century,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Others credit Ramirez with fleshing out the agency’s fluency in tech by hiring security researchers and privacy experts.

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“She’s built up the FTC’s in-house technical capacity,” said Berin Szoka, president of the right-leaning think tank TechFreedom.

Ramirez’s impending departure from the FTC is likely to leave the agency shorthanded, with three vacancies on the five-member panel. With one Republican and one Democrat remaining, the FTC probably will be deadlocked in a partisan tie until the Trump administration can fill the other vacancies, which could take months.

Fung writes for the Washington Post. 

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