The FTC and the New Common Law of Privacy

94 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2013 Last revised: 5 Apr 2014

Daniel J. Solove

George Washington University Law School

Woodrow Hartzog

Samford University - Cumberland School of Law; Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society

Date Written: August 15, 2013

Abstract

One of the great ironies about information privacy law is that the primary regulation of privacy in the United States has barely been studied in a scholarly way. Since the late 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been enforcing companies’ privacy policies through its authority to police unfair and deceptive trade practices. Despite over fifteen years of FTC enforcement, there is no meaningful body of judicial decisions to show for it. The cases have nearly all resulted in settlement agreements. Nevertheless, companies look to these agreements to guide their privacy practices. Thus, in practice, FTC privacy jurisprudence has become the broadest and most influential regulating force on information privacy in the United States — more so than nearly any privacy statute or any common law tort.

In this Article, we contend that the FTC’s privacy jurisprudence is functionally equivalent to a body of common law, and we examine it as such. We explore how and why the FTC, and not contract law, came to dominate the enforcement of privacy policies. A common view of the FTC’s privacy jurisprudence is that it is thin, merely focusing on enforcing privacy promises. In contrast, a deeper look at the principles that emerge from FTC privacy “common law” demonstrates that the FTC’s privacy jurisprudence is quite thick. The FTC has codified certain norms and best practices and has developed some baseline privacy protections. Standards have become so specific they resemble rules. We contend that the foundations exist to develop this “common law” into a robust privacy regulatory regime, one that focuses on consumer expectations of privacy, extends far beyond privacy policies, and involves a full suite of substantive rules that exist independently from a company’s privacy representations.

Keywords: privacy, FTC, administrative law, common law, contract, data security, deception, unfairness, COPPA, FCRA, GLBA, Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Safe Harbor, FTC Act, Section 5

JEL Classification: O30, O33, M31, M37, K20, K23, K40

Suggested Citation

Solove, Daniel J. and Hartzog, Woodrow, The FTC and the New Common Law of Privacy (August 15, 2013). 114 Columbia Law Review 583 (2014); GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013-120; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2013-120. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2312913 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2312913

Daniel J. Solove (Contact Author)

George Washington University Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202-994-9514 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://danielsolove.com

Woodrow Hartzog

Samford University - Cumberland School of Law ( email )

800 Lakeshore Dr.
Birmingham, AL 35229
United States

HOME PAGE: http://cumberland.samford.edu/faculty/woodrow-n-hartzog

Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society ( email )

Palo Alto, CA
United States

HOME PAGE: http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/profile/woodrow-hartzog

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