Ohlhausen stresses limits of FTC’s power to regulate drones

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The Federal Trade Commission’s jurisdiction over drones is limited to commercial areas and privacy, but doesn’t include law enforcement and national security, the agency’s sole Republican member said Thursday.

People are still trying to figure out how to deal with the privacy implications of drones because the technology is still relatively new, Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen said at an FTC event in Washington, DC.

“As society adapts to new technologies, such concern often generates and drives policy conversations. These conversations are an important part of the cycle of social adaptation to technological change. In that cycle, a new technology first prompts societal resistance, then gradual adoption, and finally assimilation. Through this process, society adapts,” the FTC official said at the event.

Ohlhausen, who often advocates what she calls “regulatory humility,” did not talk about any areas in which the agency might increase its enforcement. Instead, she emphasized how the FTC wants to “understand technological trends, the existing and potential benefits and possible consumer protection issues, and the legal and economic environment.”

That message resonated with industry representatives who appeared in a panel discussion, several of whom said existing rules and laws are adequate. They said government should figure out any problem that needs to be solved and target it, rather than trying to do broad regulation. Too much regulation would stifle innovation, those in industry said.

Gregory McNeal, a law professor and co-founder of a drone software company, cautioned against treating drones differently than other forms of technology, such as GoPro cameras.

“I don’t see how it changes when we take the camera and we put it on the drones, unless of course, they say it is different because these are aircrafts,” he said.

However, McNeal also noted that drones are distinct in some ways, because they are operated remotely and can get to places that other devices cannot.

The panel’s sole privacy advocate, Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said stronger protections are needed because companies are increasingly using drones, and people don’t believe they have adequate control over what happens to the data collected.

“The public should understand what the drone is being used for,” said Scott, director of the EPIC Domestic Surveillance Project. “We shouldn’t wait until drones are implemented in a way that makes it hard to then, after the fact, implement some types of policy.”

—Claude Marx and Xiumei Dong

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