12.3: The Federal Trade Commission
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The FTC was created in 1914 to address the problem of monopolies and trusts. Following the Civil War, a wave of consolidation and growth among companies triggered increased public debate. Through handshake agreements, issuance of stock, and pooling arrangements, companies could fix prices and outputs, thus effectively stopping competition and raising consumer prices. A substantial number of mergers gave control over key industries to small groups of businesses. Where companies did not merge, other arrangements were made to have a similar effect. Conglomerates controlled most of the relevant industries that produced household necessities. Goods used in production were also the product of highly concentrated trusts, such as the United States Steel Corporation and the International Paper Company. Concerns about industrialization and a changing economy, with shifting norms for personal lives, triggered antitrust sentiment.
The perceived unfairness and fears caused by the consolidation of businesses created strong anti-business sentiment and increasing cries for price controls to be considered as a remedy for heavily concentrated industries. These organizations posed economic and social problems that became a large social concern. In response, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was created with broad powers to investigate and propose formal recommendations to companies about their competitive practices. The FTC did not formally have a consumer protection mission until the passage of the Wheeler-Lea Act in 1938. This act gave the FTC the power to combat false advertising for any foods, drugs, medical devices, or cosmetics.
In addition to the Wheeler-Lea Act, subsequent amendments to the FTC Act, as well as judicial respect toward the agency, broadened the power and jurisdiction of the FTC.
Today, in addition to its original antitrust roots, the FTC enforces consumer protection laws.
Bureaus of the FTC
Several bureaus now stand in support of the FTC’s efforts.
Bureau of Consumer Protection
The Bureau of Consumer Protection protects consumers against unfair trade practices. Bureau attorneys enforce consumer protection laws issued by the FTC. In addition to enforcement actions, the Bureau’s functions include investigations and consumer and business training. Unfair trade practices in advertising and marketing are a main focus, as well as privacy, financial products and practices, and identity protection. The Bureau also manages the United States National Do Not Call Registry and investigates telemarketing fraud.
Bureau of Competition
The Bureau of Competition’s purpose is to eliminate and prevent “anticompetitive” business practices related to the enforcement of antitrust laws. The FTC and the Department of Justice share responsibility for enforcement of antitrust laws.
Bureau of Economics
The Bureau of Economics supports the Bureau of Competition and Bureau of Consumer Protection by providing subject matter expertise regarding the economic impacts of FTC legislative activity.
The FTC investigates issues raised through a number of sources, including consumer, business, and media reports. If the FTC concludes that there was unlawful conduct, it may seek several forms of recourse. These include the pursuit of voluntary compliance through a consent order, the submission and filing of administrative complaints, or the initiation of a federal action and litigation.
The FTC has the power to create rules regarding widespread industry practices. Rules created in this fashion to address systemic issues are called trade rules.
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