TIME Tech Policy

Meet the Woman Keeping Silicon Valley in Check

Cade Martin 2014 Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez

Edith Ramirez is probably not the most popular person in Seattle right now. As the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, she’s currently suing two of the city’s biggest tech companies: Amazon, for allegedly making it too easy for kids to rack up in-app purchases on their parents’ Kindles, and T-Mobile, for allegedly cramming unwanted charges into customers’ phone bills. That’s to say nothing of the recent settlements with Snapchat over false marketing and Apple over in-app purchases. It’s all come under the watchful eye of Ramirez, who assumed the chairwoman’s position in March 2013 and has taken a laser focus to the activities of tech companies, particularly in regards to mobile.

The new FTC head talked to TIME about the hidden permissions lurking in terms of service agreements, Facebook’s controversial mood study and whether Americans should ever expect a “right to be forgotten” online. An edited version of the conversation is below.

TIME: How important is the technology sector as a whole for the FTC right now? Is it an area of focus for you personally?

Ramirez: Our fundamental mission is to protect consumers and promote competition and so we are going to be wherever consumers are. The reality is that technology has been playing a critically important role for the agency for a number of years. Because we see consumers really gravitating to mobile devices, it’s crucial that the agency be very much informed about and keenly aware of what’s happening in the mobile sphere.

TIME: What are the biggest challenges or dangerous that consumers can face with the rise of mobile?

Ramirez: You want consumers to be able to partake in all of the terrific innovation we see in the marketplace. One way to assure that is to make sure the products that are out there take into account what’s of concern to consumers—that includes, among other things, taking into account concerns about data security and privacy, and also making sure that some of the basic protections that we’re all used to when we walk into a grocery store or a local convenience store, that we also have those basic protections available to us when we’re engaging in a transaction on our smartphone.

Data security is paramount in my view. The more connected we are, the more information and data that is being gathered by all sorts of different companies. It’s crucial that this personal information that is being collected and being used, that companies take reasonable steps to ensure that data is protected.

TIME: We live in this era now where people sign up for services and they don’t read the fine print. Do you think there’s a base level of privacy or control that Internet companies should be affording their customers?

Ramirez: I do. We realize that consumers aren’t going to be poring over long, confusing privacy policies. Now that we’re in a mobile world, what’s the likelihood that anyone’s going to be scrolling through on a mobile device some lengthy privacy policy? That’s become increasingly unlikely.

Companies need to be thinking about privacy from the get-go, when they first start conceiving of any new product or service. If you’re developing an app that’s a flashlight app, do you really need to have access to my contacts? Do you really need to have access to my geolocation? If they want to access information that goes beyond what one would expect, they ought to be asking for permission to do that.

I think we’ve seen a tremendous improvement, even in the course of the time I’ve been at the agency. We’ve seen companies realize that consumers really do care very deeply about maintaining their information [security] and they want to also exercise greater control. At the same time I think a lot more needs to be done in this area. A lot in this area still continues to take place behind the scenes in a black box. Consumers may not fully appreciate the extent of data-sharing that’s taking place.

TIME: Last month people were upset because Facebook did this experiment where they were altering people’s News Feeds to change their mood in some way. Do you think that experiment was appropriate for them to do?

Ramirez: I can’t really comment on the specifics of what Facebook did, but I think what it does show is again the need for consumers to be in the driver’s seat. They want to know what companies are doing, how they’re using the information that they’re sharing. It just goes to show that consumers don’t want to be in the dark about this. That’s a basic responsibility companies have—they ought to be transparent about what they’re doing, they ought to give consumers an opportunity to have control over how their information is being used, what information is being collected. Simply because [consumers] are receiving a service, and even it happens to be free, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be in control.

TIME: Does the FTC plan to investigate the Facebook issue formally?

Ramirez: We can’t comment on how investigations we conduct. What I can tell you is these are issues we are concerned about and we are monitoring the marketplace.

TIME: In Europe, the courts recently enshrined a “right to be forgotten,” so people can delete articles about themselves from search results. Do you think that’s something Americans should have the right to for privacy reasons?

Ramirez: Of course we’re operating here in the U.S. under a very different legal regime than folks are in Europe. An expansive “right to be forgotten” is not something that’s likely to pass Constitutional muster here in the United States because there is a First Amendment right to both access to public information and freedom of expression. At the same time, I do understand the need for us to think about controlling our own information. By way of example, I know that consumers want to be able to delete information. If they’re on a particular platform, they will want to be able to be assured that if they close out their account that their information will be deleted. This is exactly an element of an order we have with Facebook. It’s not an expansive right to be forgotten, but there are certain controls and tools that I think U.S. consumers would like to have.

TIME: As we see these tech companies like Google and Amazon getting bigger and bigger, taking up a larger portion of their sectors, do you think there are antitrust issues with these companies as they continue to grow?

Ramirez: With any large company, if they have market power, monopoly power, we would be looking closely at how they use that. We did conduct an investigation relative to Google a couple of years back. In that particular investigation, we opted not to take action.

TIME: A lot of times when FTC settlements come out, people see the dollar figure, and it seems like a slap on the wrist to these companies that are generating billions of dollars in revenue every year. Are the actions you take actual deterrents to stop companies from abusing consumers in various ways?

Ramirez: We do not have general civil penalty authority. We can’t assess a fine when we find a violation of law under our general statute. What we can do is seek to obtain consumer redress or we can, if appropriate, ask a company to disgorge any unlawful gains that resulted from the unlawful conduct.

In any particular case, the amount that you may see, you may think, ‘Well how does that compare to the profits of a company?” But that’s not really the analysis. The analysis on our end is, “Are we successfully recovering money that would compensate consumers for the damage that they have suffered.”

I think our enforcement work is sending important signals to the marketplace. In the privacy arena, Facebook, Google, Twitter [are] under order. It’s sent important signals to them, and I think as a result of the action that we’ve taken, companies are more aware of what their responsibilities are.

TIME: How are you able to strike a balance between this goal of consumer protection and allowing companies to innovate and try new things?

Ramirez: Whether it’s having information about what you’re paying for, whether it’s knowing what information an app might want to have access to when I’m downloading it—all of these things really work side by side with innovation. I don’t think consumers should have to sacrifice their privacy, the security of their information…when they avail themselves of all these terrific products that we see today. In fact I think for companies to flourish, it’s really important that consumers feel they can trust the products that they’re using, that they feel that they know the full extent of what is happening when they download a service. Companies will flourish all the more if they provide basic protections.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com