Will FTC Base Decisions on the Dignity Factor?

During a talk with the New York Times this week, David Vladeck, new head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, mentioned that violation of a consumer’s “dignity” could be a factor in privacy related cases. “Now, Mr. Vladeck indicated, the commission would begin considering not just whether companies caused monetary harm, but whether they violated consumers’ dignity. ‘There’s a huge dignity interest wrapped up in having somebody looking at your financial records when they have no business doing that,’ he said.”

We’d never really heard it put that way before, and thought it made sense to follow up with Vladeck and the FTC about this concept of dignity as a factor in the commission’s decisions. I was able to speak with Jessica Rich, acting associate director of the division of privacy and identity protection this afternoon about it.

“Some of the laws that are out there…don’t recognize privacy in and of itself, meaning that consumers may not want their information out there — regardless of whether some specific economic injury can be shown,” she explained.

Dignity, she added, involves “the basic concept of privacy without an overlay of specific harms that can be proven.” In other words, even when there’s no direct monetary effect involved in a dispute, consumers are still entitled to privacy protection from the agency.

Expect some sort of FTC workshop or townhall type event this fall to deal with these ideas as they relate to personal online data such as health records or online behavioral data employed for advertising.

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