If you’re feeling overwhelmed by holiday shopping, you’re not alone. According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer plans on spending about $1,048 this holiday season, and consulting firm Deloitte projects total holiday spending this year will exceed $1.1 trillion.
All of that commerce can’t happen without government agencies assuming responsibilities along the way. As this holiday shopping season reaches its climax, we thought we’d take you for a stroll past some of the federal government agencies that make sure things run smoothly and the types of records they might handle.
So grab a cup of cocoa, kids, and gather ‘round for a wee bit of wintery wonkiness…
Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
More and more holiday shopping starts on the internet, so that’s where we’ll begin, too.
The agency primarily overseeing the internet, the FCC, officially regulates “interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.”
A key example of the FCC’s influence on the internet is its involvement in regulating net neutrality, a principle by which internet service providers (ISPs) are expected to deliver and load websites at equal speeds and rates. Under recent rule changes, it is easier for ISPs like Xfinity and AT&T to obstruct or charge money for specific online content, but they are required to report their “network management practices” to the FCC. A different agency, the FTC, is responsible for investigations and enforcement related to those activities and disclosures.
The FCC has had a shaky record on FOIA in recent years. In 2018, it fought a MuckRock FOIA for emails related to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s performance of the Harlem Shake. Despite Pai’s promise to operate the “most transparent” FCC ever, the agency has often obstructed the release of records, resulting in many lawsuits. In March of this year, two U.S. Congressmen inquired into the FCC’s electronic records retention practices.
If you’re not in the mood to deal with potential obstruction, a common and frequently successful type of FOIA request is for complaints to the FCC about various TV and radio programs. We’ve gathered some of these into the project Must Seethe TV.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The FTC has two missions: to protect consumers and promote competition. It protects consumers by stopping “unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices,” educating consumers, and developing rules for businesses. These rules help prevent fake online reviews and make sure things get shipped on time, among other things.
To promote competition, the FTC enforces antitrust laws, monitors business practices, and reviews business mergers. For instance, when T-Mobile sought to acquire Sprint earlier this year, it got its merger plan approved by the FTC (as well as the Department of Justice). One good use of FOIA might be to investigate how T-Mobile got the FTC’s approval.
A FOIA request to the FTC can also reveal the government’s reactions to important social issues. In 2018, MuckRock user Joey Del Ponte uncovered FTC documents related to conversion therapy. FTC officials were concerned about their ability to enforce new legislation that defined advertising or getting paid for conversion therapy as “an unfair and deceptive act.”
If you want to learn more, a popular type of FOIA request asks for FTC complaints about particular companies and cases. You can also browse the agency’s FOIA log to learn more about what other requesters have asked to have.
US Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission
The US Postal Service provides mail and shipping services to all Americans, ensuring that everyone has equal access to postal products and services. While some might take it for granted, USPS employs over half a million people, making it one of the largest civilian employers in the country. Despite being self-supporting, it delivers 47% of the world’s mail. On top of all that, it has the most visited website of any federal agency.
Send us your holiday cards! We’ll add a postmark to each envelope, straight from "Santa’s desk" in the North Pole.— U.S. Postal Service (@USPS) December 9, 2019
Find out how: https://t.co/OrE0xDFyto
Santa’s Helpers#sendjoy pic.twitter.com/ytEJuJ1R3o
While it may seem innocent, the Postal Service does have its secrets. In October, Gersh Kuntzman at Streetsblog NYC used FOIA to uncover the relatively-lenient disciplinary practices of the USPS toward its drivers, despite evidence that USPS drivers are involved in a lot of accidents each year.
You can find more FOIAnspiration via the PRC’s FOIA log:
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
The CPSC protects “the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death” from “consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction.” In other words, they make sure the things you buy aren’t dangerous. If a gift you want to buy gets recalled, it’s probably because of them. If you’re curious, you can FOIA them to learn more about their investigations and enforcement of safety standards.
Like any business-facing agency, privacy interests are an important factor in FOIA success. In a recent Supreme Court decision, the court kept a third party from using FOIA to get businesses’ confidential information from the USDA, setting a precedent for the CPSC to follow.
You can browse some other MuckRock requests related to the CPSC here.
Department of Commerce (DOC)
The Department of Commerce regulates and advocates for cybersecurity, manufacturing, trade enforcement, and intellectual property rights, among other things. It also regulates “information and communications technology and services” supply chains, particularly those from foreign adversaries. And it generally promotes exports, foreign investment, and other economic factors that benefit American businesses.
FOIAing the DOC can help uncover important stories that affect your holiday shopping options. For instance, this MuckRock request seeks to understand why the DOC issued a “temporary general license extension” to Huawei, the controversial Chinese tech firm, despite the threats it poses to U.S. national security. The decision affects your ability to purchase Huawei devices this holiday season.
You can find more requests to the Department of Commerce here.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
CBP is a Department of Homeland Security component that inspects imports arriving at U.S. ports and land borders. Most likely, if you order something from overseas, it will have to pass through CBP to get into the country. CBP seizes imports that break U.S. laws, so ordering a counterfeit Baby Yoda might not be the best idea! If you’re curious, try using FOIA to uncover what other kinds of counterfeit goods are getting confiscated this holiday season.
Thinking about picking up some @starwars "Baby Yoda" merchandise to gift for the holidays? You’re not alone – be careful of counterfeiters and other #intellectualproperty violations which can be harmful to your health and safety. Learn more at https://t.co/nv1wG1CMDb pic.twitter.com/jcuFUKAOuJ— CBP Office of Trade (@CBPTradeGov) December 9, 2019
E-commerce poses a significant challenge to CBP, as imports begin to come in smaller and smaller packages. Another useful application of FOIA might be to investigate how CBP is adapting to e-commerce’s growing popularity.
However, CBP has a less-than-stellar track record on more sensitive FOIA requests. For example, the ACLU is suing CBP (and ICE) over its responses to FOIA requests regarding Stingray surveillance devices. The agency told the ACLU it had no responsive records on the subject, which the ACLU finds “completely implausible.”
For more from CBP, check out the rest of our requests.
US International Trade Commission
The US International Trade Commission investigates and makes determinations in cases of “imports claimed to injure a domestic industry or violate U.S. intellectual property rights.” Buying counterfeit goods from overseas might get their attention. If you’re interested, FOIA this agency to learn more about how the US is fighting intellectual property violations this holiday season.
You can find other MuckRock requests filed with the US International Trade Commission here.
U.S. Trade Representative
The Office of the US Trade Representative is responsible for “developing and coordinating U.S. international trade, commodity, and direct investment policy, and overseeing negotiations with other countries.” When you buy a gift for someone, the price and the country of manufacture are affected by trade agreements negotiated by the US Trade Representative.
You can use FOIA to learn more about the negotiations behind the trade agreements that affect your holiday shopping experience (the USMCA is particularly relevant right now). For instance, back in 2015 reporters at the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered via FOIA that American trade officials had cozied up to industry representatives related to the proposed Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), which sought to facilitate international trade in services like banking and health care.
All the rest
The end-of-year holidays can be a season of great joy and great stress, and beyond the federal actors overseeing our nation’s economic regulations, agencies from local law enforcement to state tax collectors all play a role in making the giving and getting of gifts a little more orderly. Do you have examples of how they’re participating in the e-commerce market or how we could use public records to learn more about them? Please let us know!
From all of us at MuckRock, happy holidays!