The FTC is trying to get more tech-savvy
The agency is beefing up its tech team and forming an Office of Technology. Here's what the new department will do.
The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is bulking up its internal tech team. The agency, which focuses on consumer protection and antitrust issues in the US, announced last week that it would be forming an Office of Technology and hiring more tech experts.
Leading the new office is Stephanie Nguyen, the agency’s existing chief technology officer, who recently spoke with PopSci about what the new department will do and what her priorities for it are.
“In general, the FTC has always stayed on the cutting edge of emerging technology to enforce the law,” she says. “In the 1930s, we looked at deceptive radio ads.” Earlier this century, she notes, they focused on “high-tech spyware.” The goal of the agency in general involves tackling problems that plague the public, like the scourge of robocalls.
“The shift in the pace and volume of evolving tech changes means that we can’t rely on a case-by-case approach,” she adds. “We need to staff up.” And the staffing up comes at a time when the tech landscape is as complex and formidable as it’s ever been, with the rise of controversial tools like generative AI and chatbots, and companies such as Amazon—which just scooped up One Medical, a primary care company, and in 2017 purchased Whole Foods—becoming more and more powerful.
A relatively recent example of a tech issue the FTC has tackled comes from Twitter, which was hit with a $150 million fine in 2022 for abusing the phone numbers and email addresses it had collected for security purposes because it had permitted “advertisers to use this data to target specific users,” as the FTC noted last year. The Commission has also taken on GoodRx for the way it handled and shared people’s medical data. They have an ongoing lawsuit against Facebook-owner Meta for “anticompetitive conduct.” Meanwhile, in a different case, the FTC was unsuccessful at attempting to block Meta’s acquisition of a VR company called Within Unlimited, which CNBC referred to as “a significant defeat” for the FTC.
[Related: Why the new FTC chair is causing such a stir]
Nguyen says that as the lines become increasingly blurry between what is, and isn’t, a tech company, the creation of the office became necessary. “Tech cannot be viewed in a silo,” she says. “It cuts across sectors and industries and business models, and that is why the Office of Technology will be a key nexus point for our consumer protection and competition work to enable us to create and scale the best practices.”
The move at the FTC comes at a time when the tech literacy of various government players is in the spotlight and is crucially important. The Supreme Court has been considering two cases that relate to a law known as Section 230, and Justice Elana Kagan even referred to herself and her fellow justices as “not the nine greatest experts on the internet.”
At the FTC, what having the new Office of Technology will mean in practice is that the amount of what she refers to as in-house “technologists” will roughly double, as they hire about 12 new people. She says that as they create the team, “we need security and software engineers, data scientists and AI experts, human-computer interaction designers and researchers,” and well as “folks who are experts on ad tech or augmented and virtual reality.”
Tejas Narechania, the faculty director for the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, says that the FTC’s creation of this new office represents a positive step. “I think it’s a really good development,” he says. “It reflects a growing institutional capacity within the executive branch and within our agencies.”
“The FTC has been operating in this space for a while,” he adds. “It has done quite a bit with data privacy, and it has sometimes been criticized for not really fully understanding the technology, or the development of the technology, that has undergirded some of the industries that it is charged with overseeing and regulating.” (The agency has faced other challenges too.)
One of the ways the people working for the new office will be able to help internally at the FTC, Nguyen says, is to function as in-house subject matter experts and conduct new research. She says they’ll tackle issues like “shifts in digital advertising, to help the FTC understand implications of privacy, competition, and consumer protection, or dissecting claims made about AI-powered products and assessing whether it’s snake oil.”
Having in-house expertise will help them approach tech questions more independently, Narechania speculates. The FTC will “be able to bring its own knowledge to bear on these questions, rather than relying on the very entities it’s supposed to be scrutinizing for information,” he reflects. “To have that independent capacity for evaluation is really important.”
For Nguyen, she says the big-picture goal of the new office is that they are “here to strengthen the agency’s ability to be knowledgeable and take action on tech changes that impact the public.”