The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an independent agency of the United States government, established in 1914 by the Federal Trade Commission Act. Its principal mission is the promotion of consumer protection and the elimination and prevention of what regulators perceive to be harmfully anti-competitive business practices, such as coercive monopoly.
The Federal Trade Commission Act was one of President Woodrow Wilson's major acts against trusts. Trusts and trust-busting were significant political concerns during the Progressive Era. Since its inception, the FTC has enforced the provisions of the Clayton Act, a key antitrust statute, as well as the provisions of the FTC Act, et seq. Over time, the FTC has been delegated the enforcement of additional business regulation statutes and has promulgated a number of regulations (codified in Title 16 of the Code of Federal Regulations).
Apex Building, built in 1938 (FTC headquarters) in Washington, D.C.
FTC chairmen and commissioners
The Federal Trade Commission is headed by five commissioners who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. Under the FTC Act, no more than three commissioners may be from the same political party. A commissioner's term of office is seven years, and the terms are staggered so that in a given year no more than one commissioner's term expires (although in certain years no commissioner's term expires and in years where commissioners choose to step down, more than one new commissioner may be appointed).
The current commissioners are:
- Jon Leibowitz - Chairman
- J. Thomas Rosch
- Edith Ramirez
- Julie Brill
- Maureen Ohlhausen
Recent former commissioners were:
- William Kovacic (January 4, 2006 - October 3, 2011)
- Pamela Jones Harbour (August 4, 2003 - April 6, 2010)
- Deborah Platt Majoras (August 16, 2004 - March 29, 2008)
- Thomas B. Leary (November 17, 1999 - December 31, 2005)
- Orson Swindle (December 18, 1997 - June 30, 2005)
- Mozelle W. Thompson (December 17, 1997 - August 31, 2004)
- Timothy Muris (June 4, 2001 - August 15, 2004)
- Sheila F. Anthony (September 30, 1997 - August 1, 2003)
- Robert Pitofsky (June 29, 1978 - April 30, 1981) & (April 11, 1995 - May 31, 2001)
- Mary L. Azcuenaga (November 27, 1984 - June 3, 1998)
- Roscoe B. Starek, III (November 19, 1990 - December 18, 1997)
- Janet D. Steiger (August 11, 1989 - September 28, 1997)
- Christine A. Varney (October 17, 1994 - August 5, 1997)
- Dennis A. Yao (July 16, 1991 - August 31, 1994)
- Deborah K. Owen (October 25, 1989 - August 26, 1994)
- Andrew Strenio (March 17, 1986 - July 15, 1991)
- Terry Calvani (November 18, 1983 - September 25, 1990)
- Daniel Oliver (April 21, 1986 - August 10, 1989)
- Margo E. Machol (November 29, 1988 - October 24, 1989) [recess appointment]
- Patricia P. Bailey (October 29, 1979 - May 15, 1988)
- James C. Miller III (September 25, 1982 - October 5, 1985)
- George W. Douglas (December 27, 1982 - September 18, 1985)
- Michael Pertschuk (April 21, 1977 - October 15, 1984)
- David Clanton (August 26, 1975 - October 14,1983)
- Paul Rand Dixon (March 21, 1961 - September 25, 1981)
- Elizabeth Hanford Dole (December 4, 1973 - March 9, 1979)
- Stephen A. Nye (May 5, 1974 - May 5, 1978)
- Calvin J. Collier (March 24, 1976 - December 31, 1977)
- Lewis A. Engman (February 20, 1973 - December 31, 1975)
- Mayo J. Thompson (July 8, 1973 - September 26, 1975)
- David J. Dennison, Jr. (October 18, 1970 - December 31, 1973)
- Mary Gardner Jones (October 29, 1964 - November 2, 1973)
- Everette MacIntyre (September 26, 1961 - August 30, 1973)
- Miles W. Kirkpatrick (September 14, 1970 - February 20, 1973)
- Philip Elman (April 21, 1961 - October 18, 1970)
- Caspar W. Weinberger (December 31, 1969 - August 6, 1970)
Bureau of Consumer Protection
The Bureau of Consumer Protection s mandate is to protect consumers against unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce. With the written consent of the Commission, Bureau attorneys enforce federal laws related to consumer affairs and rules promulgated by the FTC. Its functions include investigations, enforcement actions, and consumer and business education. Areas of principal concern for this bureau are: advertising and marketing, financial products and practices, telemarketing fraud, privacy and identity protection, etc. The bureau also is responsible for the United States National Do Not Call Registry.
Under the FTC Act, the Commission has the authority, in most cases, to bring its actions in federal court through its own attorneys. In some consumer protection matters, the FTC appears with, or supports, the U.S. Department of Justice.
Bureau of Competition
The Bureau of Competition is the division of the FTC charged with elimination and prevention of "anticompetitive" business practices. It accomplishes this through the enforcement of antitrust laws, review of proposed mergers, and investigation into other non-merger business practices that may impair competition. Such non-merger practices include horizontal restraints, involving agreements between direct competitors, and vertical restraints, involving agreements among businesses at different levels in the same industry (such as suppliers and commercial buyers).
The FTC shares enforcement of antitrust laws with the Department of Justice. However, while the FTC is responsible for civil enforcement of antitrust laws, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice has the power to bring both civil and criminal action in antitrust matters.
Bureau of Economics
The Bureau of Economics was established to support the Bureau of Competition and Consumer Protection by providing expert knowledge related to the economic impacts of the FTC's legislation and operation.
Activities of the FTC
The FTC puts out its mission by investigating issues raised by reports from consumers and businesses, pre-merger notification filings, congressional inquiries, or reports in the media. These issues include, for instance, false advertising and other forms of fraud. FTC investigations may pertain to a single company or an entire industry. If the results of the investigation reveal unlawful conduct, the FTC may seek voluntary compliance by the offending business through a consent order, file an administrative complaint, or initiate federal litigation.
Traditionally an administrative complaint is heard in front of an independent administrative law judge (ALJ) with FTC staff acting as prosecutors. The case is reviewed de novo by the full FTC commission which then may be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals and finally to the Supreme Court. A summary of cases heard since 1996 indicates that the commission has never upheld an administrative law judge's decision to dismiss a complaint. After adverse results in which the independent administrative law judges have ruled against the FTC (Schering Plough and Rambus), there has been a move towards FTC commissioners being appointed as ALJ (Commissioner Rosch in Inova Health).
Under the FTC Act, the federal courts retain their traditional authority to issue equitable relief, including the appointment of receivers, monitors, the imposition of asset freezes to guard against the spoliation of funds, immediate access to business premises to preserve evidence, and other relief including financial disclosures and expedited discovery. In numerous cases, the FTC employs this authority to combat serious consumer deception or fraud. Additionally, the FTC has rulemaking power to address concerns regarding industry-wide practices. Rules promulgated under this authority are known as Trade Rules.
In the mid-1990s, the FTC launched the fraud sweeps concept where the agency and its federal, state, and local partners filed simultaneous legal actions against multiple telemarketing fraud targets. The first sweeps operation was Project Telesweep in July 1995 which cracked down on 100 business opportunity scams.
In 1984, the FTC began to regulate the funeral home industry in order to protect consumers from deceptive practices. The FTC Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to provide all customers (and potential customers) with a General Price List (GPL), specifically outlining goods and services in the funeral industry, as defined by the FTC, and a listing of their prices. By law, the GPL must be presented to all individuals that ask, no one is to be denied a written, retainable copy of the GPL. In 1996, the FTC instituted the Funeral Rule Offenders Program (FROP), under which "funeral homes make a voluntary payment to the U.S. Treasury or appropriate state fund for an amount less than what would likely be sought if the Commission authorized filing a lawsuit for civil penalties. In addition, the funeral homes participate in the NFDA compliance program, which includes a review of the price lists, on-site training of the staff, and follow-up testing and certification on compliance with the Funeral Rule."
One of the Federal Trade Commission's other major focuses is identity theft. The FTC serves as a federal repository for individual consumer complaints regarding identity theft. Even though the FTC does not resolve individual complaints, it does use the aggregated information to determine where federal action might be taken. The complaint form is available online or by phone (1-877-ID-THEFT).
The FTC has been involved in the oversight of the online advertising industry and its practice of behavioral targeting for some time. In 2011 the FTC proposed a "Do Not Track" mechanism to allow Internet users to opt-out of behavioral targeting.
Unfair or deceptive practices affecting consumers
Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, grants the FTC power to investigate and prevent deceptive trade practices. The statute declares that unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful.  Unfairness and deception towards consumers represent two distinct areas of FTC enforcement and authority. The FTC also has authority over unfair methods of competition between businesses.
In a letter to the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the FTC defined the elements of deception cases. First, there must be a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer.  In the case of omissions, the Commission considers the implied representations understood by the consumer. A misleading omission occurs when information is not disclosed to correct reasonable consumer expectations. Second, the Commission examines the practice from the perspective of a reasonable consumer being targeted by the practice. Finally the representation or omission must be a material one that is one that would have changed consumer behavior.
In its 2000 Dot Com Disclosures guide, the FTC said that [d]isclosures that are required to prevent deception or to provide consumers material information about a transaction must be presented clearly and conspicuously.  The FTC suggested a number of different factors that would help determine whether the information was clear and conspicuous including:
- the placement of the disclosure in an advertisement and its proximity to the claim it is qualifying,
- the prominence of the disclosure,
- whether items in other parts of the advertisement distract attention from the disclosure,
- whether the advertisement is so lengthy that the disclosure needs to be repeated,
- whether disclosures in audio messages are presented in an adequate volume and cadence and visual disclosures appear for a sufficient duration, and
- whether the language of the disclosure is understandable to the intended audience.
However, the key is the overall net impression.
In F.T.C. v. Cyberspace.com the FTC found that sending consumers mail that appeared to be a check for $3.50 to the consumer attached to an invoice was deceptive when cashing the check constituted an agreement to pay a monthly fee for internet access. The back of the check, in fine print, disclosed the existence of this agreement to the consumer. The FTC concluded that the practice was misleading to reasonable consumers, especially since there was evidence that less than one percent of the 225,000 individuals and businesses billed for the internet service actually logged on.
In In the Matter of Sears Holdings Management Corp., the FTC alleged that a research software program provided by Sears was deceptive because it collected information about nearly all online behavior, a fact that was only disclosed in legalese, buried within the end user license agreement.
Courts have identified three main factors that must be considered in consumer unfairness cases: (1) whether the practice injures consumers; (2) whether the practice violates established public policy; and (3) whether it is unethical or unscrupulous.
The first version of a bill to establish a commission to regulate trade was introduced on January 25, 1912, by Oklahoma congressman Dick Thompson Morgan, once known as the "father of the Federal Trade Commission." Morgan also made the first speech on the House floor advocating its creation on February 21, 1912. Though the initial bill did not pass, the Republican party platform of June 1912 endorsed the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission. Morgan reintroduced a slightly amended version of his bill during the April 1913 special session.
On May 23, 2007, the House passed the Energy Price Gouging Prevention Act, H.R. 1252, which will provide immediate relief to consumers by giving the Federal Trade Commission the authority to investigate and punish those who artificially inflate the price of energy. It will ensure the federal government has the tools it needs to adequately respond to energy emergencies and prohibit price gouging with a priority on refineries and big oil companies.
- Better Business Bureau Video Series
- Brandeis Award, awarded annually by the FTC to "outstanding litigators"
- Business opportunity
- Competition law
- Competition policy
- Competition regulator
- Consumer Product Safety Commission
- Consumer protection
- Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
- FTC Fair Information Practices
- FTC regulation of behavioral advertising
- In the Matter of Sears Holdings Management Corporation
- G. Cullom Davis. "The Transformation of the Federal Trade Commission, 1914 1929," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Dec., 1962), pp. 437 455 (archived in JSTOR)
de:Federal Trade Commission es:Comisi n Federal de Comercio fr:Federal Trade Commission pl:Federalna Komisja Handlu