New FTC chief vows online privacy push

Edith Ramirez, the newly named chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, promised on Friday to continue her agency's focus on protecting the privacy of Internet users.

"We haven't been shy about taking on the tech giants," Ramirez said, noting that the FTC has brought privacy violation charges against Facebook and Google in recent years. "That has been just tremendous. And that’s all, in my mind, vital and will continue."

But on one of the most controversial current privacy issues, the question of whether users should have the right to opt-out of online tracking, Ramirez said she favors voluntary commitments from businesses over mandatory regulations.

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"Ultimately, I think that any long-lasting solution will have to be arrived at through an effort by all of the interested parties," Ramirez said of efforts to provide a "Do Not Track" option for consumers.

Her predecessor, Jon Leibowitz, had warned that if voluntary talks failed, he would back Do Not Track regulations.

After more than a year of negotiations, browser makers, advertisers and privacy advocates have been unable to agree how to implement the feature.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced mandatory Do Not Track legislation last month, saying that industry groups had failed to live up to their commitment, and it was time for the government to act.

But Ramirez said she is optimistic that industry groups will eventually reach a "consensus-based" solution to limit online tracking.

In her first public discussion as chairwoman, which was part of a summit hosted by the International Association of Privacy Professionals, Ramirez took a harder line on other privacy issues.

She praised the FTC's recent decision to expand regulations aimed at protecting the online privacy of children. She vowed to vigorously enforce the regulations, which will limit the ability of websites, apps and ad networks to knowingly collect information from children younger than 13.

"We take that responsibility quite seriously," Ramirez said.

She said the FTC needs to do more to protect privacy on mobile devices, which can collect geo-location data and other sensitive information.  

Ramirez said she plans to hold a workshop to study privacy issues related to the "Internet of things" — a term used to describe connecting common technologies such as cars, televisions and kitchen appliances to the Internet.

"It won't be long before everyday devices — refrigerators, TVs — both at home and at work are going to be capturing all sorts of information about how we behave," Ramirez said. 

She said the expansion of Internet-connected technologies has the potential to bring tremendous benefits to consumers but there will also be important privacy issues that must be addressed.

Ramirez said she supports the "unfairness doctrine," which asserts that the FTC has the authority to punish companies for an unfair practice if it harms consumers, even if it is not deceptive or anti-competitive.

She said the power is especially important for protecting consumers' privacy. 

"I feel we've used that authority very judiciously," Ramirez said, adding that the doctrine does not give the agency a "blank check." 

Ramirez's elevation from commissioner to chairwoman has left a vacancy on the five-member commission and a 2-2 split between Republicans and Democrats.

She denied that the temporary lack of a Democratic majority would prevent her from advancing her agenda.

"I don't see it impeding the very important work of the agency," she said. "We are a bipartisan commission ... The work that we do is consensus-based."

Ramirez, who took over the agency's top job on Monday, had worked in private practice in Southern California on antitrust and intellectual property issues before joining the commission in 2010. She worked on President Obama's 2008 campaign as a director of Latino outreach, and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review when Obama was its president.