The Power of the Outsider

As FTC chair, Edith Ramirez has focused on protecting consumers in the age of Big Data

Edith Ramirez has been credited with helping to “bring the Federal Trade Commission into the 21st century.”

Credit: Cade Martin Edith Ramirez has been credited with helping to “bring the Federal Trade Commission into the 21st century.”

Edith Ramirez ’92 still considers herself a Washington outsider, even with the fourth-floor Pennsylvania Avenue office provided to the chair of the Federal Trade Commission with views of the Capitol dome and National Gallery of Art.

Born in Southern California to Mexican immigrants, Ramirez returned to her home state after graduating from Harvard Law to clerk for a 9th Circuit judge and then began her career as a litigator at Gibson Dunn. She later moved to Quinn Emanuel, where her practice included both intellectual property and antitrust work.

She might never have left the West Coast, if not for the election of President Barack Obama ’91. They first met while serving together on the Harvard Law Review, and Ramirez served as a Latino outreach coordinator during his 2008 presidential campaign. He nominated Ramirez to a seat on the five-member FTC in 2009 and chose her to be chair four years later.

As head of the primary govern­ment agency tasked with protecting the rights of consumers, Ramirez has focused much of her efforts on digital privacy, often involving products that didn’t exist at the time she came to the FTC.

Last year, for instance, Ramirez announced an FTC settlement with Snapchat, a photo- and video-sharing app that launched in 2011 and promises its images will “self-destruct” within seconds of being opened. In reality, the FTC alleged, recipients had several ways to save the images, and a security failure led to the disclosure of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers.

To Ramirez, the Snapchat case “illustrates that there is no data privacy without data security,” a lesson borne out repeatedly during her tenure, which has seen massive data breaches involving retail giants such as Target.

Ramirez has also focused on the privacy implications of Internet-enabled devices, or the “Internet of things” in the age of big data. For example, companies score consumers and then use the scores to deny them the ability to complete transactions, a trend she’s described as “discrimination by algorithm.”

Of particular concern is the way “unscrupulous organizations can use big data to [target] misleading offers or scams to the most vulnerable prospects,” Ramirez said in a June speech at a big data conference in Hong Kong.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer protection and privacy organization, credits Ramirez with “helping bring the Federal Trade Commission into the 21st century.”

“Her focus on ensuring the agency protects vulnerable consumers, including low-income Americans, and addressing unfair practices targeting minorities is incredibly important,” Chester said.

In addition to her work protecting the digital rights of consumers, Ramirez has devoted much of her time to the FTC’s competition work, including consideration of major mergers ranging from Express Scripts and Medco (approved) to Sysco and US Foods (rejected).

In August, the commission adopted new principles explaining how it will exercise its authority to confront unfair or deceptive practices in response to internal and external concerns that its approach wasn’t clear enough.

For the first time, it detailed the three factors it will use in determining whether to exercise its authority to challenge unfair competition. Ramirez said she was glad to be able to build consensus among commission members for a “broad, flexible” approach rather than a prescriptive code of regulation.

For most of her term, Ramirez has stood out in Washington for the degree to which she has avoided the public spotlight, said Janis Kestenbaum ’92, who first met Ramirez at Harvard and served on her staff at the FTC for four years.

“She’s really about the substance and the job, and she’s not really all that interested in promoting herself,” said Kestenbaum.

Asked in August about her plans for this fall, after her term at the FTC would expire, Ramirez said she remains focused on the job at hand.

“I’m not even at all thinking about what I’m doing after I leave the FTC,” she said. “There’s still more to come.”