As part of the FTC's budgetary request, the agency trumpeted its pursuit of spyware and spam. But, writes Ars Technica, the FTC's prosecution of online abuses has been anemic.
Testimony from FTC Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras revealed that in the last two years, the Commission has taken action against 11 spyware operators. Think about that number for a moment, and then think about the sheer amount of spyware in the wild. Despite the plague of software that continues to annoy grandparents, uncles, parents, and the occasional geek, the FTC has gone after an average of 5.5 spyware operators a year. Fortunately, it has had some notable successes, most recently a $1.5 million fine against Direct Revenue that will hopefully strike a bit of fear into other US-based adware companies.
At a Congressional hearing, Democrat Mark Pryor took the agency to task for its anemic performance, saying spyware is "a real source of frustration for my family, my constituents, my office." He thinks the FTC's fines when it does catch spyware vendors is too low - a mere cost of doing business as the companies rake in the bucks.
The FTC also wants a "civil penalty authority," because the agency can currenty only force the businesses to pay restitution for losses suffered by consumers, which is often impractical because "consumers suffer injury that is either noneconomic in nature or difficult to quantify," Majores told senators.
Civil penalty authority would give the agency much more latitude to lay down the smack on offenders. Bills that would give the FTC this authority and Marty been introduced into Congress but have yet to be passed.
Another remedy that's moving forward is criminal penalties for spyware authors. The FTC is working with the Justice Department and foreign governments to jail authors of the software.
"Until we have success as a law enforcement community in placing them in prison," Commissioner William Kovacks said, "I don't think we'll ultimately have the deterrent influence we need."
How about spam?
The FTC has brought only 89 legal actions against spammers in the last decade, and only eight were filed in 2006. Meanwhile, spam is projected to surge past human-generated messages this year. In the FTC's defense, these cases are difficult to prove and prosecute, and spam often originates beyond US borders (and other agencies, like the Department of Justice, handle the criminal cases). Even given all the caveats, though, eight cases does not inspire confidence that the FTC will be the agency that can slow the rising tide of junk e-mail.