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FTC: stealth enforcement or no enforcement?
By: Scott Bradner
For the last few months I've been dutifully telling the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) when I receive an unsolicited FAX - I've decided to stop since there seems to be no reason to keep doing so. I guess the 1,087 or so "active employees" of the FTC seem to have better things to do than to deal with this type of lawbreaker. The FTC seems to be paying about the same level of attention to enforcing the, very weak, CAN-SPAM law -- your tax dollars not at work.
The FTC has a nice web page where you can report receiving an "junk FAXs and telemarketing". (https://esupport.fcc.gov/form1088/consumer.do) A few months ago I decided to start reporting whenever I received an unsolicited FAX. The process is easy -- a few clicks, enter a bit of data, attach a scan of the FAX and you are done. For some reason that web site seems to fail in one way or another about one in 10 times I try it but I've now submitted quite a few reports. Each time I do so the FTC sends me, via paper mail, a copy of my report and some pages of boilerplate. I recycle the paper unopened since there is nothing I can do with the information in it. I wonder how many such letters they send out a year -- and how many trees and tax dollars it cost to do so.
One type of FAX that I've been getting all along is for cheap vacations from what the FAX says is the "corporate travel dept.". I've received these for years and have called the opt-out number many times but the FAXs keep coming. And even after reporting a number of them through the FTC web page I keep getting them.
This led me to wonder if the FTC was doing anything with these reports other than wasting my tax money sending me paper copies so I looked at the news release section of the FTC web site (http://www.ftc.gov/opa/index.shtml). I reviewed the news releases since Jan 2007 looking for mention of FAXs or spam. I did not find any news releases about FTC action on unsolicited FAXs and only one that seemed to be about someone specifically violating the CAN-SPAM act. (There were a few other releases about spam but they seemed to be about fraud by email not about the provisions of CAN-SPAM by itself.
According to an on-line directory (www.ftc.gov/ftc/oed/whitepages.pdf) the FTC has close to 1100 active employees (and maybe some inactive ones). Judging by the number of news releases they do keep busy - they just do not keep busy trying to deal with lawbreakers in the FAX and spam areas.
I can see that making any real progress against spam when the basic law explicitly authorizes the sending of spam (see Enforcing the permission-to-spam act - http://www.sobco.com/nww/2004/bradner-2004-04-26.html) but how hard can it be to track down who is paying for a phone number listed on a junk fax and throw the courts at them? Too hard, I guess.
The press release about the speech that FTC Chair gave on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the FTC may have put it best: "No Substitute for the Agency's Own Sustained Efforts to Get Things Right." (http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2008/06/ftc100.shtm ) Well, if they keep trying they may actually figure out how to do their job right -- but donŐt hold your breath.
disclaimer: Harvard tries anew with every student to "get things right" -- it often succeeds but I have not heard any university opinion on the FTC's failure to do the same so the above is my own opinion.