The official calendar for Joshua Wright, a commissioner with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, shows he has had many meetings with technology company lobbyists, but none with consumer advocates, even though consumer protection is a major part of the agency's mission.
Wright, a Republican appointed as commissioner in January 2013, has had only a couple of meetings related to consumer privacy and none with any consumer privacy groups, according to the calendar, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Wright's office disputes the allegation that he has failed to meet with consumer groups, saying he has met with more than a half-dozen consumer advocacy groups. Wright has met with the American Antitrust Institute, a consumer-focused antitrust enforcement advocacy group, and has discussed privacy and consumer protection issues with the National Asian American Coalition, according to his office, but those meetings don't show up on his calendar.
Instead of meeting with consumer groups, Wright, a former law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, has met with a parade of technology vendors and other businesses at the same time that the FTC has focused a significant amount of its energy on online privacy and data breach issues.
In his first 15 months in office, Wright has met with, among others, representatives of Amazon.com, Verizon Communications, Uber, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Zillow and app developer Rovio. He has also met with representatives of the Network Advertising Initiative, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Online Publishers Association, the App Developers Alliance, the Consumer Data Industry Association, two free-market think tanks and the conservative Federalist Society.
Wright was traveling Friday, but his office said he welcomes meetings with consumer groups. "Commissioner Wright has had and continues to have an open-door policy with respect to meetings with public interest groups -- including consumer and privacy organizations -- that are relevant to the scope of the FTC's work and mission," the statement said.
EPIC sought the calendar after Wright turned down three requests by members of the Privacy Coalition to meet with him, said Jeramie Scott, the coalition's coordinator at EPIC. In response to the third request, made in late January 2013, a staffer for Wright said the commissioner could not meet with the coalition "in light of other speaking engagements and obligations." Wright's adviser suggested the group follow up with the office in the fall of 2013.
A major part of the FTC's mission is to prevent unfair business practices that hurt consumers, Scott noted. "Commissioner Wright's unwillingness to meet with privacy groups while meeting with industry lobbyists raises troubling questions about his continued role at the FTC," he added. "It leaves a bad impression to only meet with company representatives and trade organizations and not give equal time to consumers and public-interest organizations that represent consumers."
EPIC has organized meetings between members of the Privacy Coalition and nearly all FTC commissioners over the past decade, including meetings with eight commissioners since 2001. The Privacy Coalition, made up of consumer, civil liberties, education and technology groups focused on protecting consumer privacy, has also met with seven FTC staffers since June 2009.
Wright has scheduled a handful of privacy-related meetings during his time as commissioner. In May, he met with privacy expert Peter Swire, who then served as co-chairman of an effort at the World Wide Web Consortium to create industry-driven standards to allow Web users to opt out of online tracking. Some privacy groups have called for Congress to pass do-not-track rules, instead of standards written by industry groups.
And in June, Wright met with a representative of Evidon, a Web analytics firm that offers a service allowing Web users to opt out of online tracking and provides software allowing them to see what companies are tracking them. In October, he met with representatives of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that advocates for strong antitrust enforcement action in the tech industry.
Wright has generally advocated for less aggressive enforcement by the FTC, but told senators during a confirmation hearing in December 2012 that he believes the commission should act to protect consumers against fraud and anticompetitive behavior.
"I profoundly respect the Federal Trade Commission as an institution, its role in protecting markets and consumers, and its mission in ensuring the effective operation of markets," he said then. "I believe greatly in the commission's fundamental mission to protect consumers."
The FTC has five commissioners -- one of the spots is currently unfilled -- who vote on the actions the agency takes. In recent weeks, the FTC issued a complaint against three propane dealers on the amount of fuel in their tanks, reached a settlement with Fandango and Credit Karma on charges their mobile apps failed to secure the transmission of consumers' sensitive personal information, and approved a final settlement with Apple over in-app purchases by children not authorized by their parents.
Wright's work before he was appointed commissioner at the FTC largely focused on antitrust law, which is a major focus of the agency, in addition to consumer protection. Wright has spoken about antitrust issues at several conferences since taking office.
One of Wright's most high-profile actions at the FTC was disagreeing with the majority when other commissioners voted this January to require Apple to pay at least US$32.5 million for in-app purchases made by children without their parents' consent. The FTC had received tens of thousands of complaints about Apple's decision to allow users of its devices to make multiple in-app purchases within a 15-minute window without reentering their password, the FTC said.
Wright, in his dissent, argued that Apple's decision was a design choice that benefits far more consumers than it hurts.
"This is a case involving a minuscule percentage of consumers -- the parents of children who made purchases ostensibly without their authorization or knowledge," he wrote. "There is no disagreement that the overwhelming majority of consumers use the very same mechanism to make purchases and that those charges are properly authorized."
The commission's action against Apple "requires a company to revamp an otherwise indisputably legitimate business practice," he added.
Wright met with Apple representatives twice last year, on Jan. 31 and Aug. 12.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]