Tag Archives: Federal Trade Commission

Federal Trade Commission Seeks Warrantless Access To Americans’ Emails

On Wednesday, September 16th, members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) told Congress that the agency needs power to access emails of Americans without a warrant approved by a judge.

The comments came at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on electronic privacy reform related to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 2015 (ECPA), a bill with bipartisan support which would require government agencies to get warrants before accessing emails and chats, regardless of how old the content is. The EPCA was first passed in 1986 to help the FTC investigate fraudulent businesses. As of right now, the government can use a process known as administrative subpoena to access messages older than 180 days without a warrant.

The Daily Dot reported:

“The agency said in prepared testimony that it was “concerned that its robust anti-fraud program will suffer if copies of previously public commercial content that advertises or promotes a product or service cannot be obtained directly from the service provider.”

“Without further clarification to recent legislative proposals,” the agency said, “updates to ECPA would appear to prevent the FTC from compelling ECPA service providers to produce such previously public material.”

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also testified against the EPCA. Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC’s enforcement division, stated, “because the SEC and other civil law enforcement agencies cannot obtain criminal warrants, we would effectively not be able to gather evidence, including communications such as emails, directly from an [Internet Service Provider], regardless of the circumstances.”

The FTC is essentially arguing that without warrantless access to emails and chats, it might not be able to fully execute its mission. Despite the warnings from the FTC, the agency has been unable to list specific cases where warrantless surveillance was vital to an investigation. At the hearing Daniel Salsburg, an attorney with the FTC, said, “I can’t necessarily say it would produce emails that would dramatically further the investigation.”

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill was also critical of the agency’s request to be exempted from the EPCA. In a written statement Brill wrote:

“I am concerned that a judicial mechanism for civil law enforcement agencies to obtain content from ECPA providers could entrench authority that has the potential to lead to invasions of individuals’ privacy and, under some circumstances, may be unconstitutional in practice.”

The FTC was also concerned that under provisions of the EPCA it would not have the ability to access customers information even if they give consent. The FTC argued that:

“A defendant may want to authorize the FTC to obtain documents directly from its cloud computing account, if the records are voluminous, or the defendant’s only copies of the records are maintained on that service.”

The agency said the EPCA 2015 would impede this ability. However, Senator Richard Blumenthal was skeptical of the imagine scenario and asked Salsburg if the situation was common.

“There have been a couple of instances where this has occurred,” Salsburg said, “but it’s not common.”

Google was also critical of the FTC’s arguments. Richard Salgado, Google Inc.’s law enforcement and information security director, told the National Law Journal, “This committee is being asked by some today to jettison precisely the type of categorical rules that the Supreme Court held were imperative.” Salgado is referring to the a unanimous 2014 Supreme Court decision requiring police to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone during an arrest.

Thankfully the claims made by the FTC are being met with skepticism and disdain. Unfortunately, the agency is only one of many agencies that are seeking surveillance abilities or already in possession of surveillance tools. Americans who value privacy and freedom should take notice and work to beat back the maneuvers of an increasingly oppressive government.

The U.S. Government Sues AT&T

WASHINGTON, DC, October 29, 2014 – On Tuesday, officials with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued AT&T, America’s second largest cellular provider, for allegedly misleading customers by selling them “unlimited” data plans that were then “throttled” by the company by slowing internet speeds of customers who consumed an excess of data past a certain point.

The FTC claims AT&T has used this practice since 2011 and estimates that it has affected over 3.5 million customers on at least 25 million occasions.

Customers experienced these data slow downs an average of 12 days a month and in some cases internet speeds were cut up to 90%. The FTC reportedly received thousands of complaints about the practice.

FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez stated, “AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise. The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T emphasized the unlimited amount of data available to consumers who signed up for their unlimited plans. When these unlimited plan consumers renewed their contracts the company failed to inform them of the throttling program. Customers who later attempted to cancel their contracts after experiencing the throttling were charged early termination fees, often amounting to several hundred dollars.

Ramirez stated, “They stopped providing the service that customers understood they had purchased when they entered into their contract. Customers would be subject to an early termination fee if they wanted to get out of their existing contract.”

In a statement AT&T’s general counsel Wayne Watts called the FTC’s complaint “baseless” and stated, “We have been completely transparent with customers since the very beginning. We informed all unlimited data-plan customers via bill notices and a national press release that resulted in nearly 2,000 news stories, well before the program was implemented.”

Watts also stated, “ It’s baffling as to why the FTC would choose to take this action against a company that, like all major wireless providers, manages its network resources to provide the best possible service to all customers, and does it in a way that is fully transparent and consistent with the law and our contracts.”

However, the FTC found in its investigation that AT&T was aware consumers found the throttling practice inconsistent with the promise of unlimited data. According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T received over 190,000 customer calls complaining about the throttling practice. Consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the practice and felt “unlimited should mean unlimited.”

After the findings of the focus group, AT&T’s own researchers urged the company’s marketers to change their verbiage, cautioning that “saying less is more” when selling related services.

The FTC worked closely with the Federal Communications Commission on this issue. The FTC voted 5-0 authorizing the staff to file the complaint. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.

The official complaint charges state that, “AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.”


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