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The Second Century of the Federal Trade Commission


You may not know much about the most important agency in Washington when it comes to regulating new technologies. Founded 99 years ago today, the Federal Trade Commission has become, for better or worse, the Federal Technology Commission.

The FTC oversees nearly every company in America. It polices competition by enforcing the antitrust laws. It tries to protect consumers by punishing deception and practices it deems “unfair.” It’s the general enforcer of corporate promises. It’s the de facto regulator of the media, from traditional advertising to Internet search and social networks. It handles novel problems of privacy, data security, online child protection, and patent claims, among others. Even Net neutrality may soon wind up in the FTC’s jurisdiction if the Federal Communications Commission’s rules are struck down in court.

But how should the FTC regulate technology? What’s the right mix of the certainty businesses need and the flexibility technological progress demands?

There are essentially three models: regulatory, discretionary and evolutionary.

The epitome of traditional regulatory model is the FTC’s chief rival: the FCC. The 1996 Telecom Act runs nearly 47,000 words — 65 times longer than the Sherman Act of 1890, the primary antitrust law enforced by the FTC. The FCC writes tech-specific before technology has even developed. Virginia Postrel described the mentality best in The Future and Its Enemies:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation…. By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future. 

The less technocratic alternative is the evolutionary model: build flexible law that evolves alongside technology. Learn from, and adapt to, the ever-changing technological and business environments.

On antitrust, that’s essentially what the FTC (along with the Department of Justice) does today. Judicial decisions are firmly grounded in economics, and this feeds back into the agencies’ enforcement actions. Antitrust law has become nearly synonymous with antitrust economics: both courts and agencies weigh the perils of both under- and over-enforcement in the face of unavoidable uncertainty about the future.

But much of what the FTC does falls into the discretionary model, unmoored from both sound economics and judicial oversight. The discretionary and evolutionary models share a similar legal basis and so are often confused, but they’re profoundly different: The discretionary model harms technological progress and undermines the rule of law, while the evolutionary model promotes both.

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