Obama to Name Jon Leibowitz FTC Chairman

Appointment Could Signal a More Aggressive Agency on Privacy, Behavioral Marketing

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- President Barack Obama is poised to appoint Federal Trade Commission member Jon Leibowitz to serve as the federal agency's chairman, a move that could step up the FTC's aggressiveness in online privacy, behavioral marketing and in enforcement.

Jon Leibowitz
Jon Leibowitz
A White House official confirmed the appointment was imminent. Because Mr. Leibowitz is a current FTC commissioner, he doesn't need Senate confirmation.

A one-time aide to U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and later VP-congressional affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America, Mr. Leibowitz, 50, joined the FTC in 2004. His wife, Ruth Marcus, is a Washington Post columnist.

As recently as last week, Mr. Leibowitz warned marketers that they need to do far more to limit behavioral marketing if they want to avoid government regulation. "Industry needs to do a better job of meaningful, rigorous self-regulation or it will certainly invite legislation by Congress and a more regulatory approach by our commission," he wrote in a concurring statement to an FTC behavioral-privacy report. "Put simply, this could be the last clear chance to show that self-regulation can - and will -- effectively protect consumer privacy in a dynamic online marketplace."

He also said that he was "troubled" by some companies "unfettered collection and use of consumers 'sensitive data' -- especially information about children and adolescents."

Finally, he said he was concerned about potential use of behavioral-profile information combining offline data with online tracking. "The possibility that companies could be selling personal identifiable behavior data linking clickstream data to personally identifiable data from other sources or using [it] to engage in price discrimination or make credit or insurance decisions are not only unanticipated by consumers, but also potentially illegal," he wrote.

Mr. Leibowitz has also pushed for the agency to be more aggressive in taking on pharmaceutical company deals that delay consumers getting cheaper drugs and he has sometimes pushed for the commission to more aggressively seek forfeitures as part of settlements.

"He's very qualified to chair the commission," said Jodie Bernstein, a former FTC director of consumer protection, who now is a private-industry lawyer. "Jon is inclined to work more closely with Congress, but he is likely to be more aggressive in antitrust, drug issues and privacy."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, predicted the FTC will turn far more active after the appointment. "Leibowitz will help transform what has been a largely anemic regulatory watchdog during the Bush years into an agency that sees its first priority as consumer protection," he said. "We expect significant FTC action on financial and health-related consumer privacy and marketing issues. There will also be a more critical eye cast with mergers."

Mr. Leibowitz has been the panel's only Democratic member because one of the FTC commissioners, Pamela Jones Harbour, is an independent. He succeeds Republican William E. Kovacic, who was designated as chairman last March by President George W. Bush after Deborah Majoras quit as chairman to join Procter & Gamble.

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