The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a long history of promoting commercial competition and consumer protection. Clearly recognizing that many of the trickiest issues facing consumers today are digital, the Commission has made the commendable decision of hiring Princeton professor of computer science and public affairs (and former EFF board member) Ed Felten as its first Chief Technologist.
Professor Felten is a leading technology researcher working in the public interest. As the founding Director of the Center for Information and Technology Policy at Princeton University, he works to grow the ranks of technologists with a mind for the public policy implications of their work. He was the lead computer science expert witness for the Department of Justice in the Microsoft antitrust case. After Felten and a team of his students "broke" the digital audio watermark technologies the music industry had created to restrict the copying of music, Felten became the lead plaintiff in a case challenging the industry's attempts to silence his reporting of his findings. In 2005, Felten and his students published critical information about the Sony BMG rootkit, exposing a computer security vulnerability being secretly installed onto the computers of countless consumers of music CDs. Later, he led teams of graduate students in uncovering the dangerous flaws in various electronic voting machines — despite legal intimidation from voting machine manufacturers — ensuring that elections were not blindly placed in the hands of unpredictable, manipulable machines.
With the FTC's report on the year-long series of Exploring Privacy Roundtables expected to be released in the coming weeks, the selection of Professor Felten may be signaling that the FTC is ready to take on a new level of involvement in defending consumer privacy. The Privacy Roundtables gathered experts from a range of disciplines to explore how emerging technologies may threaten consumer privacy — and what role the FTC should take in defending consumer interests. With Felten on board, the FTC is uniquely positioned to deal with the myriad issues from the Roundtables in ways that protect consumer privacy without hampering innovation.
Congratulations to both Professor Felten and the FTC. EFF is looking forward to seeing great work from the Commission on consumer privacy issues and beyond.