Judith L. Oldham: Lawyer's Record on Ad Compliance Put to Use on Internet Challenges
Marco, Donna De, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
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. …