In comments filed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau in response to the Federal Trade Commission’s request for comment following the agency’s Big Data workshop, the group suggested the Commission focus on incidents of actual harm, instead of worrying about the mere collection or use of data.

“[I]t is where there are actual harms – not theoretical or speculative harms – that the Commission can be the most effective in carrying out its mandate of protecting the American consumer,” general counsel Mike Zaneis wrote.

In September, the FTC hosted a public workshop titled “Bit Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?” During the daylong meeting, representatives from the Commission cautioned attendees about the dangers of big data, which FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said “can have big consequences,” and “has the capacity to reinforce disadvantages faced by low-income and underserved communities.”

After the workshop, the agency offered the chance to comment on the topics discussed at the workshop.

Emphasizing the “hugely beneficial” advertising and marketing uses of data, the IAB said it appreciated the FTC’s consideration of big data and the possibility of consumer harm. But given the “enormous universe” of big data, the group urged the agency to focus on actual harm instead of theorizing about potential problems.

“To that end, the Commission’s continued focus on advertising – a topic explored once again in the workshop – does the Commission (and by extension the public) a disservice by diverting attention from where actual harms may be occurring,” Zaneis wrote. “Continuing to explore a sector of the economy with robust self-regulation, or even its intersection with sectors with specific laws where unauthorized or inappropriate use of data could cause concrete harms to consumers, is counterproductive and unwarranted.”

The IAB attached a recently published editorial by the group that called into question the FTC’s ability to render unbiased decisions about the advertising industry. In a blog post, the Commission’s chief technologist discussed the potential for discrimination where different protected classes view different ads.

Noting that different groups of people have seen different ads throughout the history of modern advertising, the IAB editorial said the idea that seeing certain online ads creates a “disproportionate adverse impact” on visitors “strains credulity.”

Not only does the suggestion make an “offensive assumption that members of specific racial, religious or social groups visit only one type of website, and see only one type of advertisement,” it implies that ads “represent such a primary and irreplaceable source of information for Internet users that failing to see a specific ad can cause measurable harm,” the group wrote.

Citing the blog post as an example of the FTC’s focus on hypothetical injuries, the IAB called on the agency to turn its attention to actual harm.

To read the IAB’s comments, click here.

Why it matters: The IAB urged the FTC to focus on actual harm to consumers and not the collection and use of data by advertisers. “As the Commission contemplates its path forward, we continue to support the current and successful approach of addressing privacy questions through targeted legislation coupled with industry self-regulation,” Zaneis concluded.