Bringing Antitrust’s Economic and Institutional Limits to the FTC’s Consumer Protection Authority

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Geoffrey Manne, May 13, 2014

In 1914 Congress gave the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sweeping jurisdiction and broad powers to enforce flexible rules to ensure that it would have the ability to serve as the regulator of trade and business that Congress intended it be. Much, perhaps even the great majority, of what the FTC does is uncontroversial and is widely supported, even by critics of the regulatory state. However, both Congress and the courts have expressed concern about how the FTC has used its considerable discretion in some areas.

Now, as the Commission approaches its 100th anniversary, the FTC, courts, and Congress face a series of decisions about how to apply or constrain that discretion. These questions will become especially pressing as the FTC uses its authority in new ways, expands its authority into new areas, or gains new authority from Congress.

The FTC oversees nearly every company in America. It polices competition by enforcing the antitrust laws. It tries to protect consumers by punishing deception and practices it deems “unfair.” It’s the general enforcer of corporate promises made in privacy policies and codes of conduct generated by industry and multi-stakeholder processes. It’s the de facto regulator of the media, from traditional advertising to internet search and social networks. It handles novel problems of privacy, data security, online child protection, and patents, among others. Even net neutrality may soon wind up in the FTC’s jurisdiction.