Consumer group letter to FTC on unwanted software – National Consumers League

February 25, 2016

The Honorable Edith Ramirez, Chairwoman
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580

Dear Chairwoman Ramirez,

On behalf of the undersigned consumer organizations, we are writing to ask the Commission to hold a workshop to examine the factors underlying the troubling growth of unwanted software (also known as “potentially unwanted programs”) and its impact on computer users.

Unwanted software are programs that consumers install inadvertently, typically because the program is bundled (often deceptively) with another program that the consumer intends to install. A common form of unwanted software are so-called “ad injectors,” which can cause Web advertisements to appear where they are not expected (e.g. a weight-loss advertisement on a children’s website). In particular, we are concerned that unwanted software may disable security updates to operating systems, Web browsers or other essential software. This can leave consumers’ computers especially vulnerable to malware infections and raise the risk of fraud such as identity theft.

The Commission has repeatedly recognized the harm caused by unwanted software via numerous enforcement actions, its 2004 spyware workshop and consumer education materials. However, troubling data has come to our attention that suggests unwanted software continues to be significant concern for the safety and security of consumers’ computers.

For example, a May 2015 study by researchers from Google, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Barbara found that 5% of visitors to Google’s services—tens of millions of users—had at least one piece of unwanted software installed on their computer. Within that group, nearly one-third of users had at least four pieces of unwanted software infecting their machines. It is expected that fraud linked to unwanted software will cost businesses $7.2 billion in 2016, an increase of nearly $1 billion from 2015, according to the digital security firm WhiteOps.

Consumers benefit from the wide availability of free software. However, we fear that this benefit could be threatened given the growing scope of the unwanted software problem.

We therefore urge the Commission to convene a workshop to reexamine the problem of unwanted software and determine whether additional Commission action beyond what was proposed in the 2005 spyware staff report is necessary. Such a dialogue would also provide valuable guidance to Web advertisers and software providers who wish to support the continued availability of free software for consumers.

We applaud the FTC’s ongoing work to protect consumers from unwanted software. With additional focus on this issue, we believe that the Commission’s efforts will greatly benefit the consumers we represent. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact John Breyault, National Consumers League vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud, at your convenience.

Kind regards,


Ed Bartholme, Executive Director, Call for Action

John D. Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud, National Consumers League

Katharina Kopp, Director of Privacy and Data Project, Center for Democracy and Technology

Linda Sherry, Director, National Priorities, Consumer Action

Marceline White, Executive Director, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition


NCL welcomes Senate’s confirmation of new FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf

February 24, 2016

Contact: NCL Communications, Cindy Hoang,, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization, is pleased to learn of the Senate’s confirmation of Dr. Robert Califf as the new head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The following statement can be attributed to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

NCL enjoys a long-standing, valued partnership with the FDA, as well as positive relationships with its commissioners. We welcome Dr. Califf to his new role at this important federal agency. Dr. Califf’s impressive academic background and expertise in cardiovascular medicine and quality of care, along with his record of serving on FDA panels and engaging in other FDA-related activities, suggest he will be a strong, experienced, and thoughtful leader at the agency.

In the last few months, we have had the opportunity to meet and speak in detail with Dr. Califf during a fireside chat-style discussion at a meeting of our Health Advisory Council. We look forward to future collaborations with the FDA and expect that under Dr. Califf’s leadership, the agency will ensure that patient and consumer protection remain the highest priority.  


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

Combatting the opioid abuse epidemic – National Consumers League

karinb.jpgIn the midst of a national epidemic of opioid abuse, our healthcare policymakers are trying to figure out how best to combat this intractable problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids, (which include the prescription painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and others) and the illegal drug heroin were involved in 28,647 overdose deaths in 2014. Drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, even surpassing car crashes.A certain laxness in prescribing addictive opioids for legitimate purposes has helped to fuel the current crisis. In 2013, almost 2 million Americans, age 12 or older, either abused or were dependent on opioid pain relievers. Once addicted, it’s incredibly difficult to stop using the drug.

This overprescribing of opioids and resulting increase in addiction, has in turn led to a resurgence in the use and abuse of heroin, which is cheaper and easier to find than prescription opioids.

The policy challenge is this: to ensure that prescribers are not creating a new population of addicts who–when they are unable to refill a prescription–turn to street drugs such as heroin to address the craving created by opioids. At the same time, we also need to ensure that people who are in pain get the relief they need. Balancing these two concerns represents a tough challenge.

The National Consumers League (NCL), which has long been concerned with the safe use of medications, welcomes the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement this month of a series of actions designed to combat the opioid abuse epidemic. Among other initiatives, the FDA will:

  • convene an Advisory Committee before approving certain new opioids
  • expand access to abuse-deterrent formulations to discourage abuse (like not allowing drugs to be ground into powder and combined with liquid to be made into possible injectables)
  • strengthen post-marketing study requirements
  • increase access to pain management training for healthcare professionals
  • work to protect appropriate patient access to needed pain medications.

The FDA’s efforts are part of a larger governmental strategy to address this growing problem. On February 2, the Obama Administration announced that it would ask Congress to spend an additional $1.1 billion next year to expand access to treatment, support programs to prevent prescription drug overdoses, and crack down on illegal sales. For its part, the CDC is currently working on new guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

We hope that these new initiatives will help lessen the burden of opioid abuse, and we welcome the development of better pain management options and alternative treatments for patients.

If you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, help is available 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

John Breyault remarks at Sen. Blumenthal press conference on airline fees – National Consumers League

February 22, 2016

Hartford, CT–Good morning. My name is John Breyault and I am the Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud at the National Consumers League. Based in Washington, DC, NCL is the nation’s oldest nonprofit consumer and worker advocacy organization.

Before I begin, I’d like to thank Senator Blumenthal for inviting NCL to speak today and for his leadership in the U.S. Senate. Since his days as a U.S. attorney, state legislator and Attorney General here in Connecticut and now as a U.S. Senator in Washington, he continues to be one of the greatest friends consumers have.

I am here today to express the concerns of millions of travelers nationwide at the ever-growing list of fees that the American airline industry is demanding from its customers. This is an industry that in less than a decade has consolidated from nine national carriers to just four major ones. Combined, American, Delta, Southwest and United control 80% of the market for domestic air travel. Thanks to this consolidation, cheap fuel, reducing seat sizes and a litany of fees, the industry last year posted its highest profits on record — $14.1 billion for the Big Four alone. And the industry’s record profits are set to continue for the foreseeable future – $33 billion in 2016 according to the International Air Transport Association.

While we applaud the industry’s ability to make money for its workers and shareholders, we believe that these “blowout” profits (as one analyst put it) are coming at the expense of consumers’ pocketbooks and safety.

We share Senator Blumenthal’s concerns about the proliferation of egregious add-on fees in the air travel industry. Only in an industry as opaque as this one could they expect to get away with calling a $650 add-on fee a “carrier-imposed surcharge.” That’s on top of $200 cancellation fees, $25 bag fees, $125 in-cabin pet fees (American), $150 unaccompanied minor fees (Delta), $25 reservation by phone fees (JetBlue), $75 name change fees  (Frontier) and literally dozens of other penalties and add-on costs. For goodness sake, there’s even a $150 antler fee, per rack! (Delta)

These charges can add hundreds of dollars to the price of a ticket, yet consumers too often have to click through page after page of airline websites to get an accurate picture of what flying will actually cost them. And forget about being able to easily compare prices across airlines. For far too many consumers it feels like you need to break out a slide rule just to figure out what is the best deal for flying to grandma’s house. And don’t let the airlines kid you. All this nickel-and-diming adds up to big bucks. Cancellation fees alone contributed an estimated $3 billion in revenue for the industry in 2015 (BTS). I’ve seen no indication that these fees are in any way related to cost for the airlines. It appears that “whatever the market will bear,” is the modus operandi when it comes to airline fees.

Consumers are fed up and are speaking out. Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported a 30% year-on-year increase in consumer complaints about the airlines. This comes despite repeated assurances from the industry that they are reinvesting revenue from all those fees in an improved customer experience.

Our simple question is this: “If, as the airlines argue, consumers are willing to put up with all the fees as long as ticket prices are low, why are complaints skyrocketing?”

Airlines are, of course, free to charge whatever fees they want, but they shouldn’t be able to hide those costs from consumers by making fee information difficult to obtain. Consumers should be able to easily and accurately compare the cost of flying — including add-on fees — across airlines so that they can get a full picture of exactly how much a particular trip is going to cost.  

This is why we feel it is so important for the Department of Transportation to require mandatory reporting of all ancillary fees. The DOT has proposed rules that would require basic reporting of such fees. However, we believe these rules can and should require much greater detail from the industry. Should the DOT fail to put in place adequate disclosure rules for consumers, we would urge Congress — with the help of leaders like Senator Blumenthal — to step in and require greater fee transparency. We hasten to add that disclosure is only a first step. Reining in these punishing fees is high on NCL’s list of much-needed consumer protections.

In conclusion, I would again like to express my thanks to Senator Blumenthal on behalf of the National Consumers League and consumers nationwide for raising this important issue. We look forward to continuing to work with him and other pro-consumer leaders in Congress to push forward reforms that promote fair dealing and fair treatment of airline passengers.

Egregious lawyer’s fees hurting consumers – National Consumers League

SG-headshot.jpgAs a lawyer myself, two recent articles on rising lawyer’s fees caught my attention. According to the Wall Street Journal, some lawyers at “white shoe firms” are now charging up to $1,500 an hour for their services. These are not harmless developments without ancillary effects. Most of these firms are working for big corporations–or shockingly, local or state government–which simply pass these exorbitant fees along to their customers or taxpayers. In other words, the little guy ultimately pays for these fees. 

In a separate article, the Wall Street Journal reported that the law firm of Wilmer Hale is charging the city of Baltimore $2.2 million for legal fees in its discussions with the Department of Justice in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray shooting. If the Wall Street Journal ran this story for its shock value, it certainly succeeded in shocking me. The Wilmer Hale lawyer who is heading the legal team for the city is no doubt very talented and experienced. But, in a previous job with Fannie Mae, that lawyer walked away with $26 million in fees before the government bailed out the mortgage agency. Given that windfall, she might have considered waiving her fee to Baltimore.

Baltimore is perennially cash-strapped. Wilmer Hale claims it gave Baltimore a 10 percent discount.  But, the firm made $2.2 million on the deal! I think it’s wrong to charge struggling municipalities these high fees. Wilmer Hale could afford to represent Baltimore pro bono or low bono; and certainly every firm, big or small, has a nonprofit rate (and it should not exceed $350 an hour to be affordable for nonprofits). Another option would be to do what Miami, Cleveland, LA, Seattle, and Portland have done, and handle similar probes with in-house counsel.

Representatives of Baltimore’s legal department have explained their decision to outsource legal counsel with the rationale that they need a more experienced firm. But, Baltimore is a poor city, with a per capita income of around $24,000. Paying  $2.2 million to a corporate law firm that charges top rates seems like a poor use of taxpayer money and erodes citizen confidence in government. 

Will Obama’s cybersecurity plan help consumers? – National Consumers League

It seems appropriate that the Obama Administration chose Safer Internet Day to announce its new Cybersecurity National Action Plan (CNAP). At a time when massive data breaches continue to be the norm, rather than the exception, it is heartening to see the President take comprehensive action to address ongoing threats to consumers’ data. So, what are some of the highlights of the CNAP? Will it help consumers getting pummeled by data breaches? 

Let’s take a look… 

Establishing a “Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity”

Bringing together cybersecurity experts to talk shop and recommend solutions is rarely a bad idea. Importantly, the CNAP is charged with delivering a report of its findings and recommendations to the President on December 1, 2016, which should make for interesting reading by data security geeks like yours truly. The CNAP calls for the Commission to be made up of “top strategic, business, and technical thinkers from outside of Government.” Within the Executive Order itself, the Commission membership qualifications are spelled out in greater detail as “those with knowledge about or experience in cybersecurity, the digital economy, national security and law enforcement, corporate governance, risk management, information technology (IT), privacy, identity management, Internet governance and standards, government administration, digital and social media, communications, or any other area determined by the President to be of value to the Commission.”

Notice something missing there? If you said “consumers,” give yourself a gold star. All too often, the job of protecting consumers’ data is punted on to the backs of consumers themselves. While doing things like enabling two-factor authentication, using good digital hygiene, and paying attention to credit reports is never a bad idea, it can’t be the only solution. The companies and agencies that collect and use consumers’ data must have real skin in the game when it comes to protecting that information. We hope that the new Commission will take a look at the role that data security standards, strong data breach notification requirements, and cyber insurance can play in strengthening data protections.

Empowering Americans to secure their online accounts

At NCL, we’re big fans of the great work the National Cyber Security Alliance is doing to arm consumers and businesses with the tools to enhance their own data security. By embracing two-factor authentication, the Administration is putting its imprimatur on a common-sense data security tool that all consumers should be using whenever possible. Kudos, too, for looking at ways for federal agencies to practice what they preach by looking for ways to implement stronger authentication methods and reduce the use of Social Security Numbers as an identifier for citizens. (P.S. If you use Google services and need some extra incentive to up your security game, our colleagues at Google are offering two free gigabytes of Google Drive storage to anyone who completes their Security Checkup).

Investing $19 billion+ for cybersecurity as part of the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Budget

This is the part of the CNAP that’s getting the most press and, frankly, will probably be the toughest part of the plan to get over the finish line, given election year politics in Washington. However, given the cybersecurity skills gap, it’s heartening to see the President’s budget proposing a package of student loan forgiveness, increased cybersecurity hiring, small business training, and technology modernization initiatives. Last year’s OPM data breach made the consequences of relying on out-of-date technology painfully clear. And for goodness sakes, it’s time for every federal agency to get off Windows XP, already!

There’s lots more to dig into in the CNAP, but overall, it’s got a lot to like from a consumer point of view. As the Plan correctly recognizes, “there is no silver bullet to fully guarantee our data security.” The fight for better data security is going to take lots of hands, and we applaud the President for proposing ways for us all to get in the trenches.