The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is adding to its internal technical staff. The agency, which focuses on consumer protection and antitrust issues in the United States, announced last week that it would be establishing an Office of Technology and hiring more technology experts.
Leading the new office is Stephanie Nguyen, the agency’s current chief technology officer, who recently spoke to PopSci about what the new department will do and what her priorities are.
“In general, the FTC has always remained at the forefront of emerging law enforcement technology,” she says. “In the 1930s, we watched catchy radio ads.” Earlier this century, she notes, they focused on “high-tech espionage”. The agency’s goal is generally to address problems that affect the public, such as the scourge of robocalls.
“The changing pace and scale of emerging technological changes means we can’t rely on a case-by-case approach,” she says. “We need to put a team up.” And the number of staff comes up at a time when the technology landscape is as complex and terrifying as ever, with the rise of controversial tools such as artificial intelligence and chatbots, and companies such as Amazon – which acquired One Medical, a prime care. company, and in 2017 bought Whole Foods – becoming more powerful.
A relatively recent example of a technology issue addressed by the FTC comes from Twitter, which was fined $150 million in 2022 for misusing the phone numbers and email addresses it collected for security purposes because it allowed “advertisers use this data to target specific users,” as the FTC noted last year. The commission also criticized GoodRx for the way it handled and shared people’s medical data. They have an ongoing lawsuit against Meta, the owner of Facebook for “anti-competitive behavior.” Meanwhile, in another case, the FTC unsuccessfully tried to block Meta’s acquisition of a VR company called Within Unlimited, which CNBC called a “significant victory” for the FTC.
(Related: Why the new FTC chair is causing such a stir)
Nguyen says the creation of the office was necessary as the lines between a tech company and a non-tech company become more blurred. “Technology can’t be seen in a silo,” she says. “It crosses sectors and industries and business models, which is why the Technology Office will be a key link in our consumer protection and competition work to enable us to create and scale best practice.”
The move by the FTC comes at a time when the technological literacy of various government players is becoming apparent and critical. The Supreme Court is considering two cases related to a law known as Section 230, and Justice Elana Kagan even referred to her and her fellow justices as “not the nine greatest experts on the Internet”.
At the FTC, what the new Office of Technology will mean in practice is that the number of what it refers to as in-house “technicians” will roughly double, hiring about 12 new people. She says that in creating the team, we need “security and software engineers, data scientists and AI experts, human-computer interaction designers and researchers,” and “people who are experts in ad technology or virtual reality increased.”
Tejas Narechania, faculty director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, says the creation of this new office at the FTC is a positive step. “I think it’s a very good development,” he says. “It demonstrates a growing institutional capacity within the executive branch and within our agencies.”
“The FTC has been operating in this space for some time,” he says. “He has done a lot with data privacy, and he has been criticized at times for not having a full understanding of the technology, or the development of technology, that has underpinned some of the industries he is tasked with overseeing and regulating make them.” (The agency also faces other challenges.)
One of the ways the people working for the new office will be able to help internally at the FTC, Nguyen says, is to serve as in-house subject matter experts and conduct new research. She says they will tackle issues such as “shifts in digital advertising, to help the FTC understand privacy, competition and consumer protection implications, or to separate and assess claims made about AI-powered products it’s snake oil.”
In-house expertise will help them approach technology issues more independently, according to Narechania. The FTC “will be able to apply its own knowledge to these questions, rather than relying on the entities it is supposed to be scrutinizing for information,” he says. “Having that independent resource for evaluation is really important.”
As for Nguyen, she says the big-picture goal of the new office is that they’re “here to strengthen the agency’s ability to know and act on technology changes that affect the public.”