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FTC’s Chance for a Big Study of Big Data

Detective Friday would ask for “just the facts.” His pursuit of criminals avoided speculation. When it comes to big data, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes the opposite approach – pursuing theoretical over factual.

In her short speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, FTC Commissioner Brill used the words “may,” “shall,” and “might” over a dozen times when talking about theoretical threats from big data’s misuse. Likewise, FTC Chairman Ramirez’s speech used charged words when describing theoretical misuses – words like, “discrimination”, “unethical” and “illegal.”

What was missing from these speeches? Data to backup the hypothetical.

[pullquote]With this research the FTC can lead the discussion from a place of fact, not fear.[/pullquote]The FTC and its commissioners enjoy a bully pulpit from which they command the attention of businesses and lawmakers. If FTC Commissioners continue discussing hypothetical problems from big data it could scare away innovation and lead to restrictive legislation. Moreover, it can cause consumers to distrust even good actors.

I have worked at the FTC. I believe in its mission to protect consumers from harm and address anti-competitive practices. I know of its good work. Which is why I am so disheartened.

Rather than doing the hard work of identifying actual harms from big data misuse and then balancing those harms against actual benefits, the FTC is just assuming harms exist and then making calls for legislation to limit big data. This does a disservice to the FTC and consumers. It calls into question the impartiality of the FTC and stymies consumer serving innovations.

Should the FTC accept its duty to research big data, it can avoid this conversation of theoretical harms and lead the discussion from a place of fact, not fear.

In our comments to the FTC we outline a three-step approach to conduct an analysis of big data based on the FTC’s own unfairness doctrine.

  1. Search for actual harms: Look to see if consumer complaints point to real-world (not theoretical) harms which exist from the use and growth of big data. Such analysis should separate out actual harms from general privacy anxiety.
  2. Balance harms: If harms exist, they must be balanced against the actual benefits of big data (some of which are discussed within these comments). This balancing should include down-stream impact of limitations on the use or collection of big data.
  3. Analyze existing laws. To avoid overly restrictive new laws, the FTC should research existing laws that mitigate identified harms not offset by benefits.

We then ask the FTC refrain from discussions of hypothetical harms or calls for legislation until the data is in.

The FTC has an opportunity to truly shape the future of big data. We only ask that it do so from a place of impartiality and facts.

FTC, please do the hard work on big data.


Image via Flickr