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Republican FTC commissioner seeks social media inquiry

Republican FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson wants her agency to probe how social media companies use consumers’ information to shape the algorithms that determine what their users see and read.

Why it matters: A wide-ranging study of social media data practices could lay the groundwork for more enforcement from the agency, as well as legislative recommendations to Congress.

Driving the news: Wilson said she supports studying how tech companies use children’s data, and then pushed for a broader review of data practices during an interview I conducted for C-SPAN’S "The Communicators."

  • The FTC can order companies to answer questions about business practices for wide-ranging studies that don’t have a specific law enforcement goal, under what's known as 6(b) authority.
  • As the FTC considers updates to its children's online privacy rules, advocates have pushed the agency to conduct such a study on children’s data. Wilson said she thinks the commission should do that, and more.
  • “ I think more generally the social media companies that we interact with essentially every day raise significant and important questions that I think the FTC needs to delve deeper into,” Wilson said. “So, for example, how information is collected and shared and monetized, and how that feeds into algorithms and how that affects the content curation of the algorithms and the promotion of certain content. I think the more we know in this area, the better.”

Don’t forget: The FTC already is conducting a study on broadband providers’ privacy practices, seeking information from Comcast, Google Fiber, T-Mobile, Charter, and AT&T and Verizon advertising subsidiaries.

  • That effort, announced in March, is focused on the categories of personal information collected about consumers or their devices, whether customers have a choice in what’s collected, and the processes to change or delete the information.
  • Wilson cautioned there could be constraints on the agency’s ability to conduct the studies. The FTC has to seek additional clearance if it wants information from 10 or more companies through a study.

The big picture: The FTC has already penalized Facebook with a $5 billion fine for privacy violations. Although critics said it wasn't enough to change the company's behavior, it was an unprecedentedly huge settlement.