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FTC faces suit for access to privacy complaints

A privacy advocacy group files a lawsuit hoping to force the Federal Trade Commission to disclose records about privacy complaints received by the government agency.

A privacy advocacy group filed a lawsuit today hoping to force the Federal Trade Commission to disclose records about privacy complaints received by the government agency.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, contending that the consumer protection agency has failed to take action on the many privacy complaints that the agency has received from consumers.

"A large part of the privacy debate in the last couple of years has centered around industry claims that there are adequate systems in place to deal with privacy problems, and the FTC has always been identified as the agency that is set up to handle them," said David Sobel, general counsel for EPIC. "This is an attempt to monitor what is going on at the FTC in response to privacy problems, and in effect to test the claims that we have an adequate system in place."

The advocacy group said that if the FTC has no effective ways to respond to privacy complaints or public concerns, then more aggressive steps should be taken.

An FTC spokeswoman said the commission is working on a response to EPIC's request.

"Our freedom of information office is in the process of responding to EPIC's request," said FTC spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld.

The FTC said it has to segregate complaints that are part of an existing or potential investigation because such complaints will not be released.

"We also have to redact any personal information from the complaints," Streitfeld said. "It is a time-consuming process, but we are in the process of doing that."

EPIC filed the initial information request under the Freedom of Information Act on June 10, 1999. In a letter to the commission, EPIC requested "copies of all records concerning the FTC's investigation of privacy complaints." The request included letters, email, Web submissions, faxes, and formal complaints.

EPIC said the FTC has responded only informally by telephone. The FOIA mandates that government agencies respond to requests within 20 working days. A provision in the act allows agencies to withhold information about specific individuals if it is necessary to protect their privacy.

But EPIC told the commission it was interested in "records regarding alleged privacy violations by a specific company or organization and requests for general assistance in a privacy matter, whether or not a specific company or organization is indicated."

Sobel said EPIC has received no written confirmation of the request and has been told by the FTC that it doesn't have a system in place for tracking privacy complaints, making it difficult to respond to the FOIA.

"We think that that in itself is telling that apparently there is no systematic way at the FTC to track consumer privacy complaints," Sobel said. "That suggests they are really not currently equipped to deal with the issue."

At a Senate hearing in July, EPIC director Marc Rotenberg criticized a report from the FTC on Internet privacy, saying it failed to provide any actual information about consumer privacy complaints or the effectiveness of industry programs to protect privacy.