The Federal Trade Commission Needs an Office of Civil Rights

Civil Rights Policy Brief # 171 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | August 26, 2021

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Policy Summary

On July 31, 2021 David Brody and Sara Collins of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law sent a letter to the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on behalf of their group and twenty-three other national advocacy organizations. This collection of organizations is calling on the FTC to address online discrimination, exploitation of personal data and abusive practices. The group contends that unfair and deceptive commercial data practices cause substantial harm to communities of color and are reinforcing structural racism and systemic bias against marginalized communities. The letter asks the FTC to remedy these issues through rulemaking and by the establishment of an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the FTC. The letter goes on to state that the establishment of an OCR office will allow it to “assess the equities of modern digital trade” and allow OCR to “advise on actions the Commission may take” regarding unjust disparate treatment on the basis of a protected class (race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, etc.).

Currently there are more than thirty Office of Civil Rights within federal agencies. While there are differences from office to office the core work around OCR’s is twofold. For internal matters at a federal agency an OCR helps with civil rights complaints from its employees such as Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints and reasonable workplace accommodations based on disability or religion. And for external matters an agency’s OCR monitors entities and programs that have received federal funding from an agency to ensure that non – discrimination requirements are met under various federal statutes such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Title IX of the Education Amendments and other federal statutes. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

The request by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and their partner organizations for an Office of Civil Rights to be established at the FTC would be a welcome step and would be in line with how other federal agencies have tried to ensure compliance with civil rights statutes.

An examination of how OCR’s have worked at other agencies shows that compliance with civil rights statutes are being monitored and reported. In the letter sent to the FTC a detailed list of unfair and deceptive commercial data practices illustrates how marginalized communities are often at a disadvantage. The ability of commercial firms to discriminate based on a protected class is allowed to occur unchecked whereas other federal agencies have implemented complaint processes to report these companies and firms.

If a company uses an automated – decision making system that is rooted in long standing patterns of discrimination (search engine algorithms to suppress results that are distinctly ethnic, phone apps like Uber that permit rejection of distinctly Black surnames) than having an OCR at the FTC to hear these complaints would help to put the FTC on notice that these incidents are occurring. There are also companies that are obscuring pricing and fee structures against perceived ethnic users. And consumers are increasingly losing the ability to manage privacy settings and delete unwanted accounts.

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Related Article: IEEE Innovation at WorkU.S. Federal Trade Commission: Seven Ways to Help Ensure Fair AI Systems – IEEE Innovation at Work

This current inability to report to the FTC algorithm manipulation and inability to control their personally identifiable information leaves consumers with very few options. They are often simply left in the dark. Companies who use the info to exploit individual consumers and their communities are allowed to continue on as before without any incentive to change their business practices. An OCR at the FTC would allow consumers to report firms they believe are acting deceptively and pressure the FTC to adopt regulations to protect not only consumers but specifically minority consumers. What is needed are regulations that force companies and firms to be transparent and accountable about their practices with regard to racial biases and their collection of personally identifiable information. The establishment of an Office of Civil Rights, like at other federal agencies, will help the FTC understand what problems consumers are facing out there and give them an idea on how to regulate those deceptive commercial practices and abuses. LEARN MORE

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact

Engagement Resources​

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National Endowment for the Arts – Civil Rights Office – infopage on how the NEA accepts complaints on how a third party who received funding from the NEA may be in violation of civil rights statutes.

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Environmental Protection Agency – Civil Rights Office – infopage on how the EPA handles complaints against a recipient of EPA funds.

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Health and Human Services – Office of Civil Rights – how HHS handles discrimination complaints against a health care provider.

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