Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Internet and the Future of Consumer Protection, part 1

I spent yesterday at the Center for American Progress conference on the Internet and the Future of Consumer Protection. Materials are available here, where a transcript will also be posted. The conference anticipates the FTC’s planned November hearings on consumer protection, the internet, and globalization.

In the first panel, Peter Swire offered a framework used by many panelists: elephants (large, politically powerful and well-defended, but also easy to regulate if the will exists) and mice (small, hard to corral and regulate) as the subjects of interest. With elephants, the difficult issues are substantive: whether a practice is deceptive or harmful. With mice, the difficult issues involve trapping them, which includes problems of crossborder enforcement. High-profile prosecutions of mice may deter other mice, but it’s riskier – elephants are paying more attention, and know they’re more likely to be the target of enforcement.

Swire identified three clusters of consumer protection issues: (1) connectivity, and problems of monopoly, as in the net neutrality debates; (2) personal information, including both intentional uses and security breaches; and (3) consumers as producers, who may now be subject to the same standards as traditional advertisers when they make claims about what they’re selling on eBay, and also have interests in their devices remaining relatively flexible and capable of generating new content – something Pam Samuelson has also been exploring. With respect to applying substantiation requirements and the like to individual sellers, Swire pointed out that, though exempting individuals and small businesses is a tempting way to limit red tape, individuals can now cause a lot more harm – something copyright owners have been saying for a while.

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