President Barack Obama has tapped former Harvard law classmate Edith Ramirez to replace Jon Leibowitz as head of the Federal Trade Commission.
The promotion comes as marketing companies face increasing regulatory scrutiny about whether they play fair with consumers when it comes to privacy. In the last four years, the FTC has undertaken a number of measures aimed at strengthening privacy protections. Among others, the agency has recommended that ad companies offer consumers a do-not-track mechanism to opt out of online behavioral marketing, tightened rules regarding data collection from children, and launched a probe of data brokers.
The FTC also has brought enforcement actions against a host of Web companies -- including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace -- for allegedly misrepresenting their policies regarding data collection or disclosure.
Ramirez, who headed the 2008 Obama campaign's director of Latino Outreach in California, is generally considered a privacy advocate.
Ramirez is on record as supporting do-not-track -- or the idea that consumers should be able to easily and permanently opt out of all online behavioral advertising. Two years ago, she testified in Congress that she believes that companies need to improve their efforts to explain privacy practices. "Most consumers have no idea that so much information about them can be accumulated and shared among so many companies -- including, employers, retailers, advertisers, data brokers, lenders, and insurance companies," she said in her written testimony.
At the same time, Ramirez, formerly a partner in Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, has been less outspoken on privacy issues than Julie Brill, the other frontrunner for the top position. Brill -- who worked for the the North Carolina Department of Justice and the Vermont Attorney General's office before joining the FTC -- has a long history of supporting privacy laws. As far back as 2001, she received an award from Privacy International for her work in Vermont.
More recently, Brill has criticized ad networks and marketers for their stance on data collection. Ad networks generally say they want to be able to continue to collect information even when consumers attempt to opt out of behavioral targeting. But privacy advocates say that companies should stop gathering information from users who say they don't want to be tracked. At a speech last year at Fordham Law School, Brill indicated that she agreed with the privacy advocates. "For me, one of the most critical points is that Do Not Track is not just Do Not Target ... but also, when the consumer so chooses, Do Not Collect," she said.
But even if Brill has taken the more strident stand in public, Ramirez is perceived as pro-privacy, thanks to her support for do-not-track and other initiatives. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, tells MediaPost that he expects Ramirez will continue the "strong privacy leadership that we saw over the last several years."