A privacy watchdog group filed a lawsuit Tuesday that seeks to force the Federal Trade Commission to release hundreds of complaints it has received from consumers concerned about potential abuses of their personal data.
The suit accuses the commission of improperly withholding records. But its broader aim is to undercut the government's position that industry self-regulation, combined with FTC enforcement, are adequate privacy protections in the Internet age.
The FTC's effectiveness in policing privacy violations is critical at a time when many consumers, particularly Internet users, are wary about what becomes of credit card numbers, addresses and other personal information they frequently disclose in everyday transactions.
The suit was filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit organization that has pushed for stronger privacy laws and a new government agency to enforce them.
Marc Rotenberg, director of the center, said the Washington-based organization is seeking the records to examine the adequacy of the FTC's enforcement efforts.
"I think we will find thousands of privacy complaints that the FTC has not dealt with," Rotenberg said. "The FTC is running around endorsing [industry] self-regulation, but they're not even opening their mail."
FTC officials called that characterization unfair and said the agency was in the process of responding to Rotenberg's record request when the suit was filed.
"Privacy is a top priority for the commission," said Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman for the FTC. "All of the complaints we get are either responded to by staff members or forwarded to the appropriate people."
The suit accuses the commission of withholding records in violation of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires government agencies to make certain records available to the public in a timely manner.
Rotenberg said the FTC has failed to respond to a request for records that the Electronic Privacy Information Center submitted June 10, although he said he did receive two phone calls from an FTC employee working on the request.
Streitfeld said the agency is trying to respond to the request "in a timely fashion," but it involves sorting through 400 to 500 consumer complaints and requests that the agency has received.
Some complaints won't be released because they may trigger investigations, Streitfeld said. Others can be released, but only after names and other personally identifiable information have been deleted. "It's a difficult process," she said.