Technology: Is the FTC our Ministry of Truth?

The FTC’s recent prosecution of Internet companies conjures up similarities to Orwell’s dystopian future

In the great George Orwell novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the Ministry of Truth is a vast bureaucracy that ironically exists to falsify historical events in the service of political ideology. Its headquarters is an 80-story building of 3,000 rooms, and its outside walls bear the words “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”

The cautionary tale should be read again to judge the significance of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recent prosecution of the country’s largest Internet companies for engaging in the allegedly deceptive practice of failing to abide by their own privacy policies.

By entering into these settlements, the FTC is not simply enforcing the law that protects consumers from deception, it is pushing a political agenda that regards government control of information as preferable to free use of information by private enterprise. It is creating a “U.S. Ministry of Information” that will allow it to dictate how and when lawfully collected and truthful information is used and give government access to the very information it says should be private.

To put this in perspective, consider the battles that the traditional press fought under the flag of the First Amendment. The press established that all prior restraints are presumptively unconstitutional. It prevailed in arguing that public officials rarely can use libel laws to publish comments of public concern. It quashed subpoenas that sought their work product and forced the government to open its doors to public scrutiny.

Contributing Author

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Thomas Julin

Thomas R. Julin is a partner and chair of the First Amendment Litigation group of the international law firm Hunton & Williams LLP. He can...

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