CFA News

CFAnews Update – May 17, 2017

Advocates Gather in D.C. for Lobby Day, Consumer Assembly

More than 100 consumer advocates from 34 states gathered in Washington, D.C. for a “lobby day” earlier this month to urge members of Congress to oppose legislation that would harm consumers in their communities. In particular, the advocates called on Congress to reject legislation that would weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and undermine its proposed rules to limit high-cost payday loans and forced arbitration. The advocates also urged opposition to the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would make it all but impossible for federal agencies to enact important new health, safety, and pocketbook protections.

The effort was coordinated by CFA and co-sponsored by Consumers Union, Americans for Financial Reform, National Association of Consumer Advocates, National Consumer Law Center, National Consumers League, Public Citizen, and U.S. PIRG. “We’re facing an unprecedented attack in Congress on sensible consumer protections that help protect our wallets and keep us safe,” said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck. “Lawmakers should stand with consumers and reject proposals that threaten to weaken the CFPB and block essential safeguards for working families.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) stopped by to rally the troops before the advocates set out for a full day of meetings.

The lobby day was held in conjunction with CFA’s 51st annual Consumer Assembly. The conference featured keynote speeches from: Marta Tellado, President and CEO of Consumer Reports; Scott Keeter, Senior Survey Advisor at Pew Research Center; Rich Galen, Columnist and Republican Strategist at Mullings; Mike McCurry, Distinguished Professor of Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary; and  Maryland House Delegate William Frick. In addition, conference sessions addressed a wide array of topics, including: The Cost of Not Regulating, The Road Ahead for Consumer Financial Protection, The Prospects for a Clean, Electric Energy Future, and The Future of Investigative Reporting.

New CDC Data Shows Little Progress on Reducing Foodborne Illness

Little progress has been made on reducing illnesses from the major foodborne pathogens, according to data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The new data shows increases in foodborne illnesses associated with several reported pathogens, and while CDC attributes some of those increases to changes in diagnostic testing and reporting, it has not ruled out an actual uptick in infections.

“This CDC report shows that unsafe food continues to make millions of Americans sick each year. The data underscores the urgent need for policy reforms to address Salmonella and other foodborne pathogens, particularly in meat and poultry,” said CFA’s Director of Food Policy Thomas Gremillion in a press statement. “We know how to make food safer, we just need the political will to move forward.”

The CDC data shows large increases in the number of confirmed Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC), Yersinia, and Cryptosporidium infections. CDC notes that these increases likely reflect changes in reporting methodologies and diagnostic testing. But for pathogens less affected by these changes, including Salmonella, Listeria and Vibrio, infection rates also went up.

“Technological change is one of many factors that complicates foodborne illness surveillance,” said Gremillion. “Despite the uncertainty, however, we must set goals and attempt to determine whether we are moving towards them, taking advantage of all the resources available. CDC has said that the agencies are developing new tools to continue to track progress toward reducing foodborne illness, and we look forward to learning how those will be applied.”

CFA Highlights Privacy & Security Concerns with Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications

As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) moves forward with a proposal to mandate Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) for Vehicle-to-Vehicle communications, CFA joined Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute in calling for the agency to address privacy and security concerns. The groups outlined those concerns in recent comments to the agency and explained how current proposals to commercialize DSRC platforms could exacerbate them and potentially put drivers’ safety at risk.

Noting the substantial cybersecurity risks that already exist with DSRC as currently proposed, the groups explained that connecting DSRC to a commercial network, or more broadly to the whole internet, introduces a whole host of new vulnerabilities. The absence of limitations on commercialization of the platform amplifies those security concerns, as it vastly expands the scope of applications whose impact might need to be considered by regulators, the groups warned. For example, evidence shows that consumers do not routinely update their software to address every security threat, nor do providers necessarily routinely do so. In the case of a smartphone, this is concerning but not life-threatening; with automobiles, lives will be at stake.

Furthermore, commercialization of DSRC platforms poses a number of privacy concerns, such as location tracking and other unwanted data collection, the groups wrote. Unlike a social media platform, such as Facebook, which consumers can choose to opt-out of, consumers will not be able to choose not to have DSRC. If the current approach to marketing infotainment systems and connected car features from the auto industry is any indication, consumers won’t be able to opt out of this sort of data collection, or choose whether or not Facebook is installed in their cars.

Despite these serious concerns, and NHTSA’s broad authority to oversee devices attached to or integrated with motor vehicles, the agency has been silent on non-safety uses of DSRC technology.

“For NHTSA to be silent on this point, and to go so far as to effectively bless widespread data collection and commercialization, describing the results as ‘valuable services to customers,’ belies the incompleteness of NHTSA’s approach to consumer privacy as contemplated by this mandate,” the groups said in their comments. “Consumers will be saddled with a mandatory tracking system that will not effectively protect their privacy from commercial or other interests.”

Antitrust Subcommittee Urged to Address “Merger Mania”

As the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee began consideration of President Trump’s nominee to head the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), CFA sent a letter to Committee members urging them to address the dramatic increase in market power enjoyed by a handful of corporations that affect commodities and services essential to American households.  As dominant platforms occupy more and more of a product space, CFA warned, consumer choice declines, prices rise and innovation slows.

Three active merger reviews currently underway at DOJ – ATT-Time Warner, Bayer-Monsanto, and Dow-DuPont – present alarming indicators of an underlying trend of market concentration, CFA wrote. It urged the Committee to explore this matter with Makan Delrahim, President Trump’s nominee to head the division.

“The pending mergers would lead to high market share of key components of bundles of complementary products, which in turn would afford leverage over the bundle,” said CFA Research Director Mark Cooper. “In the communications space, AT&T controls key services, wireless and business data services, over which content flows. Allowing this control will only increase consumer costs.”

“In the agriculture space, dominant firms combine control over genetic traits, chemicals and seeds.  Farmers are locked into the bundles and independent competitors are locked out, when access to any of the complementary components is denied,” said CFA Director of Food Policy Thomas Gremillion. “The trait, seed, chemical bundle is the key input for the farmer that affects the product sold to consumers.”

“The unique challenge for antitrust authorities is to recognize in their analysis the incentives and ability to leverage market power created by the strong complementarities between markets, and to craft remedies that prevent these abuses,” CFA wrote. “Sometimes only denying mergers, where the competitive harms outweigh potential efficiency gains, can repair the competitive harm. Sometimes applying strong conditions on access to the complementary input to preserve the potential for competition in vertically related markets can preserve and promote competition.”

“This is a key moment when America will choose between competition and an economy dominated by a handful of corporate giants,” the letter concludes.