Technology is an ancient concept. The Greeks differentiated epistêmê, the idea of knowledge, from technê, which meant craft or arts or applied knowledge. The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as, the “branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; […] The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively.”

Despite technology’s antiquity and it connection to industrial and mechanical activities, today, some commentators have labeled the FTC as the Federal Technology Commission.[1] These commentators suggest that the FTC does something today qualitatively different from the past. But this is not the case. The FTC has always regulated technology—the technology of the day.

The 1910s and 1920s were exciting times for technology, just as revolutionary and life changing as today. The period saw the popularization of the automobile (an invention that actually connects people), a technology that had immense social and economic implications. The first news programs on the radio started in the 1920s, and by this decade, most towns had movie theaters. The rotary-dial telephone was commercialized during this period, and the first intercontinental phone calls were made.

Meanwhile at the Commission, the agency lacked a formal consumer protection mission. Nonetheless, the agency tackled cases concerning technology in many fields. One need only get to the thirteenth page of the FTC’s first volume of cases to find a matter involving technology—the passing off of chemically-treated cotton as silk.[2] More generally, the 19th century advent of modern advertising was a product of technological innovation.[3] The FTC brought its first advertising case in 1917.

Among the FTC’s first Trade Practice Conferences included proceedings on chemical and biological products, on direct selling and cooperative marketing techniques, on electrical power, on fertilizers, on insecticides, on motion pictures, and even on the rebuilt typewriter industry. Many of these were the raw commodities necessary to build a mass consumer society. Today we take them as a given, and do not appreciate their novelty and importance.

Calling the FTC the technology commission is a useful rhetorical device. It casts the FTC as a vengeful Zeus, punishing a titan for bringing something new to the masses. But it is ahistorical. It treats technology as something that exists today, forgetting the innovation and social implications of technology from decades past.

[1] Brian Fung, The FTC was built 100 years ago to fight monopolists. Now, it’s Washington’s most powerful technology cop, Wash. Post, Sept. 25, 2014.

[2] FTC v. Yagle et al., 1 FTC 13 (1916).

[3] Rebecca Tushnet and Eric Goldman, Advertising & Marketing Law: Cases and Materials 3 (2012).