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Nov 21
2016

Presidential Predictions For Financial Consumer Protections

What will the future bring?

In January 2017, the Obama Administration will transfer power to the incoming Trump Administration, and Congress will convene with a Republican majority in both houses. Predictions abound as to what legislative and regulatory changes will transpire under the new administration. Earlier this month, WSJ Pro hosted a live video event to discuss how the election will impact financial regulation. Financial Regulation Editor Jacob Schlesinger moderated the discussion with two Washington financial-policy analysts: Brian Gardner of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, and Ian Katz of Capital Alpha Partners. Both analysts expect aggressive deregulation of the financial sector according to the President-Elect’s promises during the campaign. Among the many topics covered, Gardner and Katz emphasized (i) potential changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, (ii) personnel changes at various agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and (iii) a more lenient approach to enforcement.

President-Elect Trump campaigned on a promise to get rid of the Dodd-Frank Act. Enacted in the wake of the 2008 recession, Dodd-Frank sought to limit the risks that banks can take and provided for consumer protection through the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). However Gardner and Katz agree that wholesale repeal of Dodd-Frank is unlikely, partly because Republicans will have a slim majority in the Senate and, thus, may lack the sixty votes needed to end a filibuster. If Senate Democrats unite in their opposition to repeal, they can prevent a vote altogether. Gardner and Katz think it more likely that the administration will modify Dodd-Frank at the margins.

Katz expects targeted efforts in that regard. For example, he predicts that the CFPB will be weakened, but not abolished. The new administration can weaken the Bureau by replacing its current single director with a Republican appointee, or by changing its structure to that of a commission with no more than three of five commissioners from either party. Given the President-Elect’s populist message, efforts to abolish the CFPB would be politically risky: the Bureau was established to protect consumers.

The administration could also target CFPB regulations. Gardner notes that promulgated rules will likely survive, but non-final rules may be withdrawn and rewritten. For example, in June 2016, CFPB proposed new restrictions on payday lending, but they have not yet been finalized. If the proposed rules are still pending in January 2017, the new administration may scrap them in favor of less onerous restrictions.

In addition to these modifications related to Dodd-Frank, Gardner and Katz discussed personnel changes at various agencies, including the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Although President-Elect Trump campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp,” leaks from his transition team suggest he will rely to a great extent on veterans of past Republican administrations. Heading the efforts for independent regulators like the SEC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Federal Reserve is Paul Atkins, an ex-SEC Commissioner who disfavors regulation. Atkins almost certainly is looking for potential appointees who share his view. Gardner does not anticipate major shifts in the regulatory environment but, as Katz notes, individuals appointed to lead these agencies will set the tone and influence each agency’s enforcement priorities. Codified rules likely will remain, but agencies faced with close questions or grey areas of the law will probably resolve them in favor of industry.

All that said, President-Elect Trump’s candidacy did not unfold as many predicted. It will be interesting to see whether and how these expected changes to financial regulation materialize under the new administration.

Apr 20
2016

Judge Flunks Case Against LabMD, FTC Appeals

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In March 2015, I wrote about the ongoing dispute between the FTC and LabMD, an Atlanta-based cancer screening laboratory, and looked at whether the FTC has the authority to take enforcement action over data-security practices alleged to be insufficient and therefore “unfair” under section 5(n) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTCA”). On November 13, 2015, an administrative law judge ruled that the FTC had failed to prove its case.

In 2013, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against LabMD, alleging it had failed to secure personal, patient-sensitive information on its computer networks. The FTC alleged that LabMD lacked a comprehensive information-security program, and had therefore failed to (i) implement measures to prevent or detect unauthorized access to the company’s computer networks, (ii) restrict employee access to patient data, and (iii) test for common security risks.

The FTC linked this absence of protocol to two security breaches. First, an insurance aging report containing personal information about thousands of LabMD customers was leaked from the billing manager’s computer onto peer-to-peer file-sharing platform LimeWire, where it was available for download for at least eleven months. Second, Sacramento police reportedly discovered hard copies of LabMD records in the hands of unauthorized individuals. They were charged with identity theft in an unrelated case of fraudulent billing and pleaded no contest.

Incriminating as it all might seem, Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell dismissed the FTC’s complaint entirely, citing a failure to show that LabMD’s practices had caused substantial consumer injury in either incident.

Section 5(n) of the FTCA requires the FTC to show that LabMD’s acts or practices caused, or were likely to cause, substantial injury to consumers. The ALJ held that “substantial injury” means financial harm or unwarranted risks to health and safety. It does not cover embarrassment, stigma, or emotional suffering. As for “likely to cause,” the ALJ held that the FTC was required to prove “probable” harm, not simply “possible” or speculative harm. The ALJ noted that the statute authorizes the FTC’s regulation of future harm (assuming all statutory criteria are met), but that unfairness liability, in practice, applies only to cases involving actual harm.

In the case of the insurance aging report, the evidence showed that the file had been downloaded just once—by a company named Tiversa, which did so to pitch its own data-security services to LabMD. As for the hard copy records, their discovery could not be traced to LabMD’s data-security measures, said the ALJ. Indeed, the FTC had not shown that the hard copy records were ever on LabMD’s computer network.

The FTC had not proved—either with respect to the insurance aging report or the hard copy documents—that LabMD’s alleged security practices caused or were likely to cause consumer harm.

The FTC has appealed the ALJ’s decision to a panel of FTC Commissioners who will render the agency’s final decision on the matter. The FTC’s attorneys argue that the ALJ took too narrow a view of harm, and a substantial injury occurs when any act or practice poses a significant risk of concrete harm. According to the FTC’s complaint counsel, LabMD’s data-security measures posed a significant risk of concrete harm to consumers when the billing manager’s files were accessible via LimeWire, and that risk amounts to an actual, substantial consumer injury covered by section 5(n) of the FTCA.

The Commissioners heard oral arguments in early March and will probably issue a decision in the next several months. On March 20th, LabMD filed a related suit in district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commission for its “unconstitutional abuse of government power and ultra vires actions.”

Mar 06
2015

Why the FTC Can Go After Companies For Insufficient Data Security Allegations

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FTC seems more confident than ever in its authority to go after companies with insufficient data security measures. As of January 2015, FTC had settled 53 data-security enforcement actions, and FTC Senior Attorney Lesley Fair expects that number to increase.

Not everyone is sanguine about FTC’s enforcement efforts. Companies targeted for administrative action complain that the Commission is acting beyond its delegated powers under the Federal Trade Commission Act (the “FTCA”). So far, courts have declined to intervene in any administrative action that is not yet resolved at the agency level.

One such case involves LabMD, Inc., an Atlanta-based cancer-screening laboratory. At least nine years ago, someone downloaded onto the billing department manager’s computer a peer-to-peer file-sharing application called Limewire. Hundreds of files on the computer were designated for sharing on the network, including an insurance aging report that contained personal information for more than 9,000 LabMD customers. In 2008, a third party notified LabMD that the aging report was available on Limewire. The application was promptly removed from the billing department manager’s computer, but the damage allegedly had been done. According to FTC, authorities discovered in October 2012 that data from the aging report and other LabMD files were being used to commit identify theft against LabMD’s customers.

Ten months later, FTC filed an administrative complaint against LabMD alleging that it had failed to employ reasonable and appropriate data security measures. FTC further alleged that LabMD could have corrected the problems at relatively low cost with readily available security measures. By contrast, LabMD’s customers had no way of knowing about the failures and could not reasonably avoid the potential harms, such as identity theft, medical identity theft, and disclosure of sensitive, private, medical information. On these facts, FTC alleged that LabMD had committed an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTCA.

LabMD tried to get the administrative action dismissed on several grounds, including that the FTCA does not give the Commission express authority to regulate data-security practices. The Commission denied LabMD’s motion, explaining that Congress gave FTC broad jurisdiction to regulate unfair and deceptive practices that meet a three-factor test: section 5(n) provides that, in enforcement actions or rulemaking proceedings, the Commission has authority to determine that an act or practice is “unfair” if (i) it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is (ii) not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (iii) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. Commissioners noted that the FTCA as passed in 1918 granted FTC the authority to regulate unfair methods of competition. When courts took a narrow view of that authority, Congress responded by amending the FTCA to clarify that the Commission has authority to regulate unfair acts or practices that injure the public, regardless of whether they injure one’s competitors. According to the Commission, the statutory delegation is intentionally broad, giving FTC discretionary authority to define unfair practices on a flexible, incremental basis. For these and other reasons, the administrative action against LabMD would proceed.

Having failed to get the case dismissed, LabMD sought relief from the federal courts to no avail. On January 20, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed LabMD’s suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court explained that it lacked the power to decide LabMD’s claims in the absence of final agency action. FTC had filed a complaint and issued an order denying LabMD’s motion to dismiss. But neither was a reviewable agency action because neither represented a “consummation of the agency’s decision-making process.” Moreover, “no direct and appreciable legal consequences” flowed from the actions and “no rights or obligations had been determined” by them.

LabMD can challenge FTC’s data-security jurisdiction only after the Commission’s proceedings against it are final. That may well be too late. As a result of FTC’s enforcement action, the company was forced to wind down its operations more than a year ago.

LabMD is one of very few companies to test FTC’s data-security jurisdiction. In 2007, a federal court in Wyoming sided with FTC in holding that the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of customer phone records was an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTCA. The Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision on appeal.

More recently, a district court in New Jersey gave FTC a preliminary victory against Wyndham Worldwide Corporation. In that case, the court held that FTC’s unfairness jurisdiction extends to data-security practices that meet the three-factor test under Section 5(n). That decision is currently on appeal before the Third Circuit. During oral argument on March 3rd, the three-judge panel signaled little doubt that FTC has authority to regulate unreasonable cybersecurity practices. Instead, the panel was concerned with how the Commission exercises that authority—specifically, whether and how it has given notice as to what data security measures are considered to be “unfair.”

posted in:
Cybersecurity
Apr 30
2014

ICANN’s New Program Adds Hundreds of Domains, More to Come

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) continues to make significant progress with its implementation of the New generic Top–Level Domain (gTLD) Program. Under the new program, ICANN has added more than 250 new gTLDs to the Domain Name System (DNS) and could add hundreds more in the next several years.

ICANN is a nonprofit organization that was formed in 1998 to coordinate the internet’s address system, promote competition in the domain–name space, and ensure the security and stability of the Domain Name System. Back then, there were a dozen or so Country Code TLDs (ccTLDs) and just eight gTLDs, including the most common top–level domains: .com, .edu, .mil, .net, and .org. As the internet grew, so did the demand for top–level domains. ICANN responded by hosting two gTLD application rounds in 2000 and 2003. Those trial rounds resulted in ICANN’s delegation of 15 new gTLDs and laid the groundwork for greater expansion under the New gTLD Program.

The New gTLD program evolved in two phases: the policy development phase and the implementation phase. The policy development phase was overseen by one of ICANN’s supporting organizations, the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO). For two years, GNSO sought input from various constituencies in ICANN’s global internet community, including government, business, technology, and intellectual–property stakeholders. Participants submitted comments on a range of topics, such as the demand for gTLDs, associated risks and benefits, selection criteria, and allocation. As a result of that process, GNSO issued a set of policy recommendations for implementing the New gTLD Program, and ICANN adopted them in June 2008.

During the subsequent implementation phase, ICANN worked with stakeholders to establish consensus on the application, evaluation and delegation process for the New gTLD Program. Drafts of an Applicant Guidebook were released for public comment and revised to address stakeholder concerns over the protection of intellectual property and community interests, consumer protection, and DNS stability. In June 2011, the ICANN Board adopted the Applicant Guidebook and launched the New gTLD Program.

During the four–month application period, ICANN received 1,930 applications for new generic Top Level Domains. These included submissions from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. More than 100 applications were first–time requests for Top-Level Domains in non–Latin scripts, including Chinese, Greek and the Indian alphabet, Devanagari.

ICANN has already completed its initial evaluation of the submissions. Approved applications are now moving toward “delegation” on a rolling basis. Each applicant must finalize and execute the required contract with ICANN. Then, the applicant must undergo pre–delegation testing. If the applicant meets the relevant technical requirements, ICANN “delegates” the new gTLD by adding it to the root zone database and turning over management of related domain–name registrations to the new registry operator. After that, the registry operator is free to sell second–level domain names under the new gTLD.

As mentioned, ICANN has already delegated more than 250 new gTLDs, with hundreds more to follow. In April alone, the organization delegated more than 50 new gTLDs.

If the expansion “transform[s] the way people use the Internet,” as ICANN hopes, the impacts will probably be most profound for the non–English speaking world. Indeed, it seems difficult to overstate the New gTLD Program’s transformative potential given ICANN’s addition of gTLDs comprising at least twelve non-Latin scripts. If the rollout continues as expected, millions of people who speak Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, and Russian, will—for the first time—be able to use the internet in their native language.

For a current list of approved gTLDs, visit ICANN’s website.

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Oct 14
2013

After Google Action, Those Who Dig for Dirt Must Dig a Little Harder

Google recently announced that it would be taking action to demote websites that profit from the use of mugshot photos. These mugshot sites compile booking photographs taken after people’s arrests and publish them along with the arrestees’ names and information concerning the charges against them. Individuals who want their mugshot and arrest record deleted from the site usually must pay a fee ranging anywhere from $10 to $400. Until recently, when a Google user searched the Internet for the name of a recent arrestee, the search hits would include, and often prioritize, mugshot sites. Owners of those sites were content with that outcome; many others were not.

New York Times writer David Segal was one of the latter. In a recent article, Segal took Google to task for not penalizing mugshot sites, which many believe traffic in exploitation. Segal argued that Google should take corrective action because it had prioritized the sites in contravention of its own stated corporate goal that favors original web content. Mugshots do not offer original content; instead, they gather and use images and text from third-party sources.

Before his article ran, Segal contacted Google to discuss the issue. Google responded that it had been working to address the problem in a consistent way. Days later, a Google spokesperson confirmed that mugshot sites do not comply with one of the search giant’s guidelines. To address the problem, Google amended its algorithm, presumably to disfavor sites without original content.

Consequently, mugshot sites are now pushed off the front page of Google search results. People digging for dirt now have to look a little bit harder.

Others who object to mugshot sites have taken the fight to regulators and legislators. On October 7, the Maryland Consumer Protection Division settled its case against the owner of Joomsef.net for false and deceptive advertising. Joomsef’s owner, Stanislav Komsky, published information on the site about traffic offenses, but added statements falsely suggesting there had been an arrest. Persons identified on the site had to pay $40 to $90 to have the information removed. As part of the settlement, Komsky must take down the site, return all payments to consumers, and pay a penalty of $7,500.

Other states are addressing the problem through legislation. Segal points out that Oregon and Georgia have passed laws this year giving site owners 30 days to take down an image, free of charge, if an individual proves that he or she was exonerated or that the individual’s record has been expunged. Utah attacked the problem another way. There, sheriffs are prohibited from giving out headshots to websites that charge for deleting them. Lawmakers in other states, like Florida Representative Carl Zimmerman, have introduced legislation targeting the sites, but many of those bills died from lack of support.

These acts of government are constrained, as they should be, in view of free-speech guarantees under the First Amendment. By contrast, the private sector is not so limited and, therefore, may end up striking the decisive blow against mugshot sites. Things are heading in that direction. MasterCard, Discover, American Express, and PayPal recently pledged to sever all ties with mugshot sites, and Visa has asked merchant banks to investigate the practices of the sites.

posted in:
Fraud, Internet Law
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About Ifrah Law

FTC Beat is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, health care, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen and George Calhoun, counsels Jeff Hamlin and Drew Barnholtz, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Nicole Kardell, Steven Eichorn, David Yellin, and Jessica Feil. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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