Economic Freedom and the Regulatory State

In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Cause of Action’s Executive Director Dan Epstein tells the harrowing story of a cancer screening provider that was “hounded out of business” by the FTC:

Since 2013, my organization has defended … LabMD … against meritless allegations from the Federal Trade Commission. Last Friday, the FTC’s chief administrative-law judge dismissed the agency’s complaint. But it was too late. The reputational damage and expense of a six-year federal investigation forced LabMD to close last year. …

In May 2008, LabMD was contacted by Tiversa, a company that describes itself as a “world leader in P2P cyberintelligence,” alleging that it had found on the Internet a LabMD insurance-agent file containing the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of about 9,000 patients. Oddly, Tiversa wouldn’t disclose where or how it discovered the file. But the company demanded a fee of $40,000 to mitigate the situation.

After leading its own thorough review that turned up no sign that any patient information had been exposed online, LabMD refused to pay. …

Tiversa had an exploitation game going. The company would “scour” the IT networks of companies for confidential information, according to whistleblower testimony in May from Richard Wallace, a former forensic analyst at Tiversa. Upon finding any such information, Mr. Wallace said, Tiversa would contact the company and demand large payments to “fix” the problem. …

In his May testimony, Mr. Wallace said that Tiversa’s strategy was essentially, “Hire us or face the music.” And that music, Mr. Wallace said, was the FTC. According to a January congressional investigation … Tiversa began working closely with FTC staff in 2007.

As Mr. Wallace detailed in his testimony, and as was uncovered in the congressional investigation, two years later the FTC and Tiversa entered a deal wherein Tiversa would create a separate company that would pass to the agency confidential computer files it had obtained from internal computer systems from LabMD and 88 other companies. The FTC then used the files to take enforcement action under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act for alleged unfair trade practices pertaining to inadequate data security. …

From the start, LabMD tried to cooperate. Yet the FTC refused to detail LabMD’s data-security deficiencies and would not disclose the nature and extent of Tiversa’s involvement. Eventually, the FTC demanded that LabMD sign an onerous consent order admitting wrongdoing and agreeing to 20 years of compliance reporting.

Unlike many other companies in similar situations, however, LabMD refused to cave and in 2012 went public with the ordeal. In what appeared to be retaliation, the FTC sued LabMD in 2013, alleging that the company engaged in “unreasonable” data-security practices that amounted to an “unfair” trade practice by not taking reasonable steps to protect patient information. …

The FTC never produced a single patient or doctor who suffered or who alleged identity theft or harm because of LabMD’s data-security practices. The FTC never claimed that LabMD violated HIPAA regulations, and until 2014—four years after its investigation began—never offered any data-security standards with which LabMD failed to comply.

The administrative-law judge’s decision—which noted the lack of proof of a single victim in the case—vindicates LabMD, though Tiversa isn’t admitting anything. “We have acted appropriately and legally in every way with respect to LabMD,” the company said in a statement after last week’s ruling.

But the case illustrates the injustice of the federal system that allows agencies to cow companies into submission rather than seek a day in court. During its three years of pre-suit investigation against LabMD, the FTC demanded thousands of documents, confidential employee depositions and several meetings with management. LabMD—which at its apex employed 30 people—spent hundreds of thousands of dollars meeting demands. No federal court would ever allow such abusive tactics. But this isn’t federal court—it’s a federal agency.

Furthermore, the FTC is likely to simply disregard the 92-page decision—which weighed witness credibility and the law—and side with commission staff. … The agency has disregarded every adverse ruling over the past two decades, according to a February analysis by former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright. Defendants’ only recourse is appealing in federal court, a fresh burden in legal fees.

That’s what happens when a federal agency serves as its own detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. … Winning against the federal government should never require losing so much.

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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