Speaker: Mozelle W. Thompson

by Brett Burney

Preview

Mozelle Thompson is the Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the pre-eminent federal organization that may take the lead in regulating the Internet from a governmental standpoint. The FTC has been involved in several high-profile Internet privacy cases such as the GeoCities case where GeoCities was required to reveal to their customers how their private information was being used. The FTC has attempted to heighten the awareness of the public to Web sites that may use private information for commercial gain. One of these ways is with the recent Online Advisory Committee that is composed of various bright minds involved with the Internet and its continuing formation.

It will be interesting to hear Commissioner Thompson's comments, as he will most surely address the lack of regulation on the use of private citizen information over the Internet. Without any kind of formal legislation, Commissioner Thompson may point out that the only thing stopping Web sites from using private information to their advantage may be the individual actions of "netizens," which may ultimately be inadequate as the Internet becomes more and more controlled by commercialism every day.

Review

"It is an exciting time to be at the FTC," stated Mozelle Thompson after his speech, where he sat and spoke with interested listeners for well over an hour and a half before going to dinner. Mr. Thompson's speech, and his after-speech remarks, focused mainly on the issue of privacy - since the FTC is currently the closest thing that the United States has to an established privacy commission.

It was well noted that the United States was absent from the panel of Privacy Commissioners that spoke right before the FTC Commissioner. Mr. Thompson himself recognized that the U.S. lacked a formal organization devoted to the issue of individual privacy, but stated that the FTC has been active in the relevant areas of concern. He noted that the U.S. does not actually have direct legislation concerning individual privacy, as other countries do, but that there is existing caselaw that has repeatedly reiterated our presumption of privacy in the U.S.

Mr. Thompson passed off the question of whether legislation is "the answer" several times. More than a few people tried to push Mr. Thompson into a corner on the legislation issue, asking whether it was going to happen now or later. Thompson refused to answer because 1) the issue is fairly controversial, and 2) the Internet is still in it's infancy and we need more input - such as the expected report from the recently formed Online Advisory Committee. Mr. Thompson said he expects to see the report sometime around June.

Instead of dwelling on the legislation question, Mr. Thompson focused on education. He declared that we need education for both businesses and for consumers, i.e. individuals surfing the Net. We should concentrate on making consumers aware of how information about them is being used and gathered when they surf particular sites. But we also need education on the business/corporate side - Mr. Thompson suggested that businesses could take an example from IBM and Microsoft which do not advertise on Web sites that do not have a stated and enforced privacy policy for their surfers.

After discussing the above "policy" issues, Mr. Thompson then switched to the FTC's primary function of enforcement - citing cases such as GeoCities and the pending issues with Yahoo! and DoubleClick. He pointed out that problems like these cannot be solved by the FTC alone, but that all levels of enforcement must interact together to create a successful level of privacy for the Internet society. There must be interaction among individuals, businesses, and of course the government. And it doesn't stop there. For enforcement to be effective in a wired world, there must be cooperation among different countries. Mr. Thompson at one point stated that "privacy is a very important issue, but it cannot be viewed in isolation."

Since there wasn't enough time for many questions after his speech, Mr. Thompson stayed around the foyer for quite a while. He was kind enough to answer everybody's question and exchanged business cards with anyone that offered. This is when he made the statement that working at the FTC is a pretty exciting business these days. He noted that what is happening in the online privacy realm today is not the result of laws, but of companies working together, mostly in their own interests. It may not be the best situation, but Mr. Thompson reserved comment on what could or will happen in the near future. He stated that fraud is fraud, no matter where it happens - on TV, over the telephone, or on the Internet - and that the FTC is committed to protecting against it.

Before rushing off to dinner, Mr. Thompson made an important statement to the last remaining listeners about the general purpose of conferences such as these: "it's not about the technologies, it's about the policies." Mr. Thompson explained that the technologies will take care of themselves. It's the policies that need to be established and worked out before our online rights get lost in the techno-shuffle.