Tag: FTC

Independent Agencies Test Tea Party Mettle

Is there something special about December? Perhaps it’s the spirit of giving that had the Federal Communications Commission voting yesterday to regulate Internet service. At the beginning of the month—December 1st—the Federal Trade Commission issued a report signaling its willingness to regulate online businesses.

No, it’s not the fact that it’s December. It’s the fact that it’s after November.

November—that’s the month when we had the mid-term election. The FCC and FTC appear to have held off coming out with their regulatory proposals ahead of the elections because the Obama administration couldn’t afford any more evidence that it heavily favors government control of the economy and society.

There was already plenty of evidence out there, of course, but the election is past now, and the administration has taken its lumps. It’s an open question whether there will be a second Obama term, so the heads of the FCC and FTC are swinging into action. They’ll get done what they can now, during the period between elections when the public pays less attention.

And that is a challenge to the Tea Party movement, which would be acting predictably if it lost interest in politics and public policy during the long year or more before the next election cycle gets into full swing. Politicians know—and the heads of independent agencies are no less political than anyone else—that the public loses focus after elections. That’s the time for agencies to quietly move the agenda—during the week before Christmas, for example.

So it’s not the spirit of giving—it’s the spirit of hiding—that has these independent agencies moving forward right now. It’s up to the public, if it cares about liberty and constitutionally limited government, to muster energy and outrage at the latest moves to put the society under the yoke of the ruling class. Both the FCC and the FTC lack the power to do what they want to do, but Congress will only rein them in if Congress senses that these are important issues to their active and aware constituents.

The FTC and Those GM Ads

I’m usually in enthusiastic accord with our friends over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but it seems to me they’ve made a mistake by petitioning the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on GM’s ridiculous “we repaid our federal loan” ad. Some zealous enforcers would love for the FTC to do more to regulate speech by American business on matters of public concern, and it seems to me the last thing we should do is encourage such a trend.

For those who came in late, General Motors and its CEO Ed Whitmire were widely and rightly assailed here and elsewhere for asserting (in a column whose message was repeated in much-played TV ads) that the company had repaid its bailout loan “in full, with interest, years ahead of schedule.” Actually, as the inspector general of the government’s TARP program readily acknowledged, the firm had merely used one pot of federal money to repay another. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley helped expose the dodge, and publications ranging from FoxNews.com to the New York Times joined in with scathing coverage.

Yesterday CEI announced that it had filed a formal complaint [PDF] with the FTC urging the commission to investigate the automaker’s ad campaign as misleading. It alleges that the ad campaign “could unfairly dupe consumers into a false, renewed confidence in the company” and that “consumer purchasing decisions can easily be affected by such considerations.” Nick Gillespie at Reason, CEI general counsel Hans Bader, and Todd Zywicki at Volokh have more.

There’s a long history of businesses’ responding to public criticism of their operations or products – and getting in further legal or regulatory trouble because of that very response. In one early case, the FTC went after egg producers for asserting, in the midst of a cholesterol scare that in hindsight appears overblown, that their ovoid wares were not in fact a menace to cardiac health. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence have asked the FTC to prohibit ads that imply that keeping a loaded weapon on hand will make a family safer. In Nike v. Kasky, a famous case that reached the Supreme Court [Thomas Goldstein, Cato Supreme Court Review 2003, PDF], shoemaker Nike was sued under a California law over the public defense it had put forward of its labor practices in overseas factories. Environmentalists have sought to suppress ads claiming that nuclear power is nonpolluting, and so forth.

Free-market advocates have generally argued that whatever the merits of laws or regulations banning misleading advertising in garden-variety commercial contexts, there are special dangers to the First Amendment and to robust debate generally in letting agencies and courts second-guess the content of “issue ads” and speech on topics of public controversy. To begin with, it encourages advocates to turn to the law to silence disagreeable speech rather than muster their best arguments to rebut it. In one grotesque example, MoveOn.org and Common Cause actually petitioned the FTC to institute a complaint against Fox News over its use of the slogan “Fair and Balanced”, since (they said) the network was neither.

Despite its current dependence on government, GM is in every relevant legal sense a private company, so any precedents forged against it will wind up applying to every other private enterprise that might wish to advertise on matters of public controversy. Which makes it a concern that CEI’s complaint cites with seeming enthusiasm broad FTC interpretations of authority – for example, its authority to suppress speech that might not be in itself false but could leave a potentially misleading impression.

If there is a continuum extending from more or less purely commercial speech (“Our tires last 40,000 miles”) to more or less purely political speech (“Our business is badly overtaxed”), GM’s ad campaign surely falls way over toward the “political” side. CEI’s response to this is to argue that the campaign might influence consumers’ purely economic calculations (as opposed to the political reasons they have to feel angry at GM) by making them more likely to see the company as solvent and thus as capable of making good its warranty promises. The words “strained” and “makeweight” come to mind to describe this argument. Does CEI really want to establish the future principle that a company’s over-sunny talk about its financial prospects will henceforth get it in trouble with two federal agencies, the FTC and SEC, rather than the SEC alone?

It all seems a rather high price to pay in principle for keeping the GM-TARP story in the papers for another day or two.

A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees

newspapersThe Associated Press reports:

The federal government is wading into deliberations over the future of journalism as printed newspapers, television stations and other traditional media outlets suffer from Americans’ growing reliance on the Internet.

With the media business in a state of economic distress as audiences and advertisers migrate online, the Federal Trade Commission began a two-day workshop Tuesday to examine the profound challenges facing media companies and explore ways the government can help them survive.

Media executives taking part are looking for a new business model for an industry that is watching traditional advertising revenue dry up, without online revenue growing quickly enough to replace it. Government officials want to protect a critical pillar of democracy—a free press.

“News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

Language mavens, observe the lede: The federal government is “wading into deliberations.” I infer that in Newspeak, this may mean something like “trying to spend more money.” Perhaps I should look forward to the federal government wading into deliberations over my salary? (On second thought, maybe not.)

Some of the proposals aimed at saving traditional journalism are relatively innocuous, like letting newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofits. At least this wouldn’t do too much harm, and, given recent performance in the industry, it approaches being fiscally neutral.

Other ideas, like forcing search engines to pay royalties to copyright holders, would have far more serious consequences. It’s hard to see whom this proposal would hurt worse, the search engines, socked with massive fees, or the copyright holders themselves – if search engines don’t index you, you don’t exist anymore.

The surest loser, though, would be the rest of us. Restricting the flow of news for the financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch seems a far cry from our Constitution, which allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Burdening search engines seems only to inhibit the progress of science and the useful arts, while enriching a small number of people. It might pass the letter of the law, but I doubt that this is what the founders had in mind.

But anyway…. shame on Americans for our “growing reliance on the Internet”! Don’t we realize that, as the article notes, “a free press is a critical pillar of democracy” – and that a free press only counts, apparently, if it’s on dead trees?

I’m all in favor of the good the press can do, but it strikes me as shortsighted to think that this good can only be done in the traditional media. It also seems foolish to me to think that tying the press more closely to the government will make it more critical and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites:

In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

… That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

Tell me again, who’s the parasite here? And why should taxpayers bail out yet another industry that isn’t delivering what we want?

Congress Shall Make No Law … But Regulators Act Anyway

Lovers of free speech should feel their stomachs turn when they look at the actions of the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission these days.

Not that they took a sharp turn with the Obama administration, or with the chairmanships of Jon Leibowitz or Jules Genachowski. These are run-of-the-mill bureaucracies, constantly reaching for new powers, nevermind even constitutional limits on the federal government’s authority.

Item 1: Blogger, You’re an Advertiser Now

Via the L.A. Times blog, the FTC issued a guidance document yesterday requiring bloggers who write testimonials about products to disclose large gifts or payments, or they will run afoul of the FTC’s regulations on advertising.

Is that the right thing to do? Yep. Is that an appropriate thing to require in federal law? Absolutely not.

The FTC is putting itself in the business of guaranteeing the veracity of speech and the honesty and straightforwardness of bloggers. “No” means no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

The “protection” in this regulatory scheme encourages consumers to be supine and irresponsible. State law should deal with frauds as they occur. There should be no law barring or limiting paid endorsements — certainly not a federal law.

Item 2: An Establishment of the Press?

Via the Examiner, it probably didn’t occur to the framers of the constitution to bar the government from establishing its own press, so they didn’t do that in the First Amendment. But we’re heading down that road, and the FTC wants to take us there.

In early December, it will hold a “workshop” called ”From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?”

Here’s an idea for a “workshop”: Taking the Budget of the Federal Trade Commission and Giving it Back to Taxpayers.

Item 3: Just a Modest Takeover of the Communications Infrastructure

As discussed here several times before, FCC Chairman Genachowski has proposed to regulate the terms on which Internet service providers supply broadband services to the public. It’s pretty much the same thing as regulating how printing presses work, or the delivery decisions of newspapers.

The federal government is specifically disabled from regulating speech and the press in the constitution. But in various ways the regulators at the FCC and FTC have talked themselves into the role of censor.

Enough of this unconstitutional consumer coddling. It’s time to shut these agencies down and restore the funds that support them to American taxpayers. Now that would be a consumer protection!

An early version of this post collapsed the FTC and FCC together. Author Jim Harper swears he knows the difference and claims he was briefly blinded with rage at unconstitutional government. Jim thanks the Cato@Liberty reader who slapped him around, getting him focused once again on *happily* railing against unconstitutional government.