Lawyer Judith L. Oldham has her hands full.
As a partner at the District-based law firm Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott, PLLC, Ms. Oldham is dealing with a variety of consumer protection and advertising issues, as well as how they tie into the ever-growing Internet.
Ms. Oldham has advised Fortune 500 companies on advertising compliance and how to challenge competitors' ads, as well as guide them through regulations created by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces federal antitrust and consumer-protection laws, including watching for deceptive and misleading advertising.
Today one of the biggest issues she and her law firm are dealing with is the challenge consumers and businesses face with advertising on the Internet.
Question: How does the FTC process work? Does the FTC find an ad they think may be deceptive or do they wait for complaints to come in?
Answer: They do a lot of monitoring. They have a whole new Internet Task Force that is a pretty substantial group of people who are monitoring all the time on the Internet. They have what they call "surf days" where they go out and look for certain kinds of claims on the Internet. They recently had a health care surf day, where they supposedly pulled off 400 Web sites that they thought had suspicious looking claims on them. They would e-mail the advertisers and say they are questioning this and will be back to visit your site in 30 days. It's kind of neat because they are using the medium as part of their enforcement. A lot of it happens that way. But it certainly comes up that a competitor will go to the FTC or they'll come to us and say can you get the FTC to do anything about this.
With the Internet and the FTC's active role there, they now have a Web site and an e-mail address and anybody can send them a suspect claim. You can forward a Web site you think they should take a look at.
Q: When did the Internet really start to become an issue that the FTC had to look into?
A: Going back about five years is when I remember that I started paying attention to this and we started giving seminars for our clients and prospective clients about emerging Internet issues. We had FTC commissioners come and speak at those seminars. I know at that time they were really starting to pay attention to those issues. It's a tough area for a regulator because it is so vast but they haven't shied away from it at all.
The Internet Task Force has set up trick Web sites to help warn consumers about what to watch out for, like all these get-rich-quick schemes on the Internet. The FTC has this fake Web site that is very enticing and promises huge amounts of money in a short period of time if you'll buy into their scheme. Then it says "click here" for more information. When you click, the FTC's logo pops up and says don't get scammed by something like this. So they are using that as part of their consumer education to monitor and to warn people about practices they think are suspect.
Q: Over the last five years how has advertising on the Internet changed?
A: Well I think what we've seen is that people had such limited presence originally. It was just enough if you had your name and the locations where you operated and how to get in touch with you. But the depth of the Web sites have increased - there's more places to click; you can click out of one Web site and into another, which raises a lot of interesting issues about who is responsible for the content.
One of the trickiest things is the blending of informational content and advertising claims. It's hard enough sometimes in a magazine. They have to put underneath "this is a paid ad" on something that looks like just part of the magazine. On the Internet it is really complicated because there are no boundaries. All of it is potentially advertising and its something that advertisers aren't aware of.
Q: Because Internet advertising is so new, there still is a lot to be ironed out concerning rules and regulations. Is it difficult for you to keep up?
A: Well yes, and we're only talking about what's going on here right now. It is complicated a thousand times over by the fact that this is a global medium. Once the advertisers understand what the rules in this country are then they have to consider other countries' rules. Every country has different rules and that involves all this dispute over whose rules should apply if your Web site is done in English and somebody in some other country pulls the information off of it.
It's complicated enough right here but then you look at the worldwide implications. It's hard to think about a lot of countries where there are people potentially downloading information off a Web site. I don't know if they even have consumer protection laws. Probably they don't. And yet other countries may have very strict ones about things that aren't a concern here. All of that adds a lot to the challenge.
Q: What is the big issue that companies are concerned about with the Internet?
A: The privacy issue. Right now it's kind of divided into two areas. Congress passed a law about children's Internet privacy. The legislation was a Clinton initiative but it was actually at the FTC's request as well because they felt legislation was needed to set rules about how much information you could collect from children, what use could be made of it and do you need parent's consent.
There have been several groups who have proposed a series of guidelines and who have invited companies who advertise to subscribe to their guidelines on privacy. Last month the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission testified before Congress and the FTC filed a report on the progress of self-regulation on privacy. And the gist of that was that industry is doing relatively well.
Q: So more and more companies are adhering to the "guidelines" that would include telling consumers what is being done with information they release?
The second is consent. You have to give the consumer a chance to consent or opt out, saying no you may not use my information.
The third is access. Consumers should be able to find out what information the Web site has collected. The idea is to find out what's there so you know what's being released.
The fourth would be a way to ensure security if they are selling it third parties.
The last one is a way to monitor and to enforce these voluntary policies and some kind of redress for consumers if they are violated.
I was reading the other day that 40 percent of the people [surveyed] admitted they provided false information [on the Internet]. They gave themselves a false name, different age, different address, a different background. Since this information is being collected to help people do target marketing, what they are getting is misinformation. Obviously the advertiser stands to lose a lot if they can't make consumers have confidence in the security of their information. They are getting back garbage and then they are spending their advertising dollars directing to the wrong people.
Judith L. Oldham
Partner, Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott PLLC
EDUCATION: Attended Duke University, graduated from University of Michigan in 1965; graduated from Georgetown University Law School in 1981.
EXPERIENCE: Legal assistant to Federal Trade Commissioner Robert Pitofsky; joined Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott in 1981; became partner in 1988.
WHAT I DRIVE: Mazda Miata
WHAT I RECENTLY FINISHED READING: "Touching the Void" by Joe Simpson and Chris Bonington
FAMILY: Husband Alan Kriegel, and two children, Nelson and Sarah…