The Costs of Regulatory Redundancy: Consumer Protection Oversight of Online Travel Agents and the Advantages of Sole FTC Jurisdiction

December 20, 2015

Every administration in recent history has attempted to reduce regulatory redundancies. One area of regulatory redundancy that deserves attention is the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) and Department of Transportation’s (DOT) consumer protection authority over online travel agents (OTAs), which generated $111 billion in revenue in 2013. This regulatory redundancy guarantees that two agencies will oversee OTAs, prevents harmonization of online consumer protection policy, and is likely to impose unnecessary costs on OTAs to adhere to two separate regulatory regimes. The importance of this conflict will grow as privacy and data security become preeminent consumer protection issues and DOT expands its jurisdiction to online information providers. Efficiency suggests the FTC as the sole consumer protection overseer of OTAs. Only the FTC has the current capacity to regulate all OTA activities, and it enjoys unrivaled expertise with respect to e-commerce consumer protection. Further, in contrast with the FTC’s ex post enforcement approach, which focuses on actual or likely consumer harm, DOT’s ex ante regulatory approach is ill-suited for the fast moving world of e-commerce. Finally, the FTC faces more serious internal and external constraints on its enforcement authority, which tends to temper the potential for regulatory overreach. There are several possible ways to effect this regulatory reform, ranging from the complete abolition of DOT’s aviation consumer protection authority and the FTC Act’s common carrier exemption, to a memorandum of understanding between FTC and DOT that harmonizes policy.