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FTC commissioner returns to law

The Federal Trade Commission's Christine Varney, who crusaded to bust swindlers on the Net, plans to resign later this summer.

The Federal Trade Commission's Internet guru, Christine Varney, will resign from her post in August, she said today.

Appointed to the FTC by President Clinton in 1994, Varney, 42, is leaving the commission to rejoin her former employer, Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson. Previously, she was Clinton's cabinet secretary and heavily active in the Clinton-Gore election campaign.

But the commissioner is not leaving behind the issues she forced on to the FTC's agenda, such as emerging e-commerce and online privacy. She will launch a Hogan & Hartson Internet practice group to help businesses set up shop in the electronic marketplace.

"I'm leaving because I've been in government at this level for five years," she told CNET's NEWS.COM. "It's important to keep in touch with the private sector. I want to overcome and eliminate the barriers in electronic commerce for U.S. businesses."

Also, she added, "The money doesn't hurt."

At the FTC, Varney is known for her ability to persuade Net companies to change their online data collection or child marketing practices by grilling them during public hearings. She helped organize a well-attended privacy workshop in Washington last month and backed efforts to investigate and crack down on Net fraud.

"She's really been an extraordinary commissioner, especially in the world of cyberspace," FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky said today. "She's taken the lead on privacy and deception issues in new technologies. It will be a great loss to us."

Varney indicated that fellow Democrat Pitofsky would carry her torch on Net issues for the five-member commission.

"We'll see the sign of my success in my tenure here if those issues have been institutionalized. The chairman is totally committed in assuring that the FTC stays on this track," Varney said. "[Pitofsky's] a different a person than I am. He's not as overtly aggressive, but he is persuasive."

Pitofsky said no matter who Clinton appoints to fill Varney's post, that industry in cyberspace will still have to answer to the FTC if they harm consumers.

"She's got the ball rolling--it's now a priority of mine, too," he added. "There is really a revolution going on in terms of the significance of the development of the Internet. All commissioners are going to have to become cyberspace-literate."

Others are confident that the FTC will not abandon online consumer issues. "The third privacy hearing that just concluded was perhaps the most thorough examination we've had since the '70s," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "I don't think her leaving indicates that the FTC will be changing course because there have been a lot of staff members dedicated to these issues."

The Internet isn't the only issue Varney brought to the fore at the FTC. She also lead a campaign against tobacco ads targeted at kids like the Joe Camel series. Investigating megamergers has been another hot issue for Varney.

But perhaps her flare for high-tech talk and media savvy will be most missed at the commission. "She certainly added a style to the agency," Pitofsky noted.