Here’s some good news for massive corporations that have violated the public trust by exposing the personal data of millions of American consumers, as if they needed it: the government’s new chief watchdog is one of their own. Andrew Smith, a lawyer who has represented dozens of firms including Facebook and Equifax, will serve as the head of the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection unit.
Smith was confirmed for the watchdog position Wednesday on a party-line vote after he promised to recuse himself from basically every high-profile case the FTC is involved in because he’s had a hand in representing the companies that are being investigated, per The New York Times.
For the last two years, Smith has worked as a lawyer at the Washington, DC firm Covington & Burling. During his time there, he’s represented a number of companies that have managed to get themselves in hot water with the government. He has recently had a hand in representing Facebook, Uber, and Equifax as the companies faced heat for a variety of data misuse. Prior to that, he was part of the legal team that defended AMG Services, a particularly predatory payday lender that was smacked with a $1.3 billion settlement for deceptive and exploitive practices it used to squeeze more money out of its cash-strapped borrowers.
As you may be aware, the firms that Smith has been involved with currently have matters before the FTC that could result in precedent-setting decisions, which is troubling!
Facebook is under investigation as to whether the company violated a consent decree it signed in 2011 in which it promised not to share user data without explicit permission. The company’s loyalty to that pledge has come into question thanks to the recent revelations that shady political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica harvested data from 87 million Facebook users.
Then there’s Equifax, which is also still under investigation from the FTC over a massive data breach that exposed the personal data of at least 145 million people, plus tens of thousands of passports, driver’s licenses, and other forms of ID. New FTC Chairman Joe Simons told Congress Thursday that the agency is still “heavily focused” on the Equifax probe.
Smith won’t have a hand in the FTC’s ongoing investigation into Equifax, but he’ll still have a small role in the legacy of the breach. Last year, Smith testified before the US Senate on behalf of Equifax, where he argued that current regulations imposed on credit reporting bureaus are not only sufficient enough to protect consumers but in some cases present too much of a burden to comply with.
He argued the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could subject Equifax and firms like it to “essentially continuous examination cycles” that would “expend substantial resources responding to examiner requests.” Of course, that is something the company likely could have avoided if it didn’t expose sensitive information of more than half of the country’s adult population.
Now he’s is the head of one of the most powerful agencies for enforcing consumer protections, and he’ll have to sit on the sidelines for the most important cases because he’s got a history full of undermining the FTC’s goals. Smith will recuse himself from dozens of cases, according to the Times, though he’s chosen not to disclose all of them. Think Progress reported the FTC declined to provide copies of Smith’s ethics paperwork that would potentially reveal his full list of conflicts.
If you’re thinking, “Maybe he’ll use his expertise and insider knowledge about these companies to protect consumers,” go ahead and dispell yourself of that notion. Smith is exactly as he appears: a guy who has spent a solid chunk of his career trying to help companies push back against regulations and evade punishment.
Gizmodo reached out to Facebook, Equifax, and Uber for comment on Smith’s appointment to the FTC. We will update this post if any of the companies respond.