Delivering the 15th annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture on September 12, Julie Brill ’85, who joined the Federal Trade Commission in April 2010, described her career as beginning in a "small world" that became progressively larger and more conducive to making a difference.

After graduating from NYU Law as a Root-Tilden Scholar, Brill clerked for Vermont Federal District Court Judge Franklin S. Billings Jr. and practiced at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before moving to the Vermont attorney general’s office. She spent more than 20 years there, becoming an assistant attorney general for consumer protection and antitrust.

The Vermont attorney general’s office was a small outfit with a broad mandate, Brill said. She tackled local issues with national implications, such as the dilemma faced by small-town residents rejected for mortgages and refinancing because national credit reporting agencies, misreading property tax records, reported everyone who had merely received a tax bill as failing to pay it.

Robert Abrams, Julie Brill, Richard Revesz“Entire towns were listed falsely as tax deadbeats,” Brill recalled. “We focused on a local issue: big errors by big companies that impacted people in small towns across Vermont.” She acquired a national profile when her work on the issue led to her testifying before Congress as the legislative body considered substantial revisions to the Fair Credit Reporting Act for the first time in a quarter-century. Brill stressed the real-life implications for Americans of inadequate federal consumer protection laws; the revisions went through.

Another major endeavor Brill undertook in Vermont was the battle against Big Tobacco. As part of a coalition of other states concerned about deceptive promotional practices in the industry, Vermont was a key player in the effort to bring justice to those adversely affected by smoking.

“Because we in Vermont carefully crafted our case as a public protection lawsuit focusing on consumer protection issues,” Brill said, “we were one of the few states that survived the industry’s intense litigation onslaught…. These victories for Vermont were also victories for the larger collective litigation effort of all the states, and these victories gave Vermont an important role negotiating a settlement with the industry.”

In 2009, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, aware of Brill’s consumer protection focus, hired her as his senior deputy attorney general and chief of consumer protection and antitrust for the North Carolina Department of Justice. But several months into the position, Brill received word that Barack Obama wanted her on the FTC. She ultimately remained at the North Carolina Department of Justice for more than a year as the nomination and confirmation process dragged out. After nine months, she finally joined former classmate and FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz ’84 on the commission.

As an FTC commissioner, Brill has tackled issues of consumer privacy, appropriate advertising substantiation, financial fraud against consumers, and ensuring adequate high-tech and health-care industry competition. But she places particular emphasis on privacy and data security in the Internet age.

“Just as technology is extending our reach to the limits of our imagination,” she said, “many of those providing us with these advances are reaching back, harvesting and trading information about us…. If all the data collected online were just to sell movie tickets or shoes, I wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of my talk to you today. But what about the data brokers that market lists of elderly patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other maladies as ‘the perfect prospects for holistic remedies, financial services, subscriptions, and insurance’?” She also cited firms that troll social networking platforms and search histories looking for red-flag data to report to potential employers contemplating a hire, banks considering loans, and insurance companies setting coverage rates. Another problem, she said, was the possibility of unintended security breaches exposing consumers’ private data.

Citing as a legal "mentor" Louis Brandeis, who was instrumental in the FTC’s founding, Brill said, “I feel fortunate to have joined the FTC just as the agency is grappling with revising Brandeis’s law of privacy in light of the new Internet age. Interestingly, Brandeis’s own engagement with privacy issues was founded on his concern about modernizing the law to address technologies that were new in his day.” That technology? Snapshot photography.

“When I worked to solve Vermonters’ problems with credit reporting agencies, I didn’t think of it as the first step on a path in public service that has brought me to a job that allows me a part in reworking the nation’s privacy laws,” Brill said. “I was simply working in my small world, where I found issues and people that interested and inspired me. Now I work to develop the law that frames the world in which you start your legal career, as you will someday end up working on the law that frames the world of future students.”

Watch the full video of the event (52 min):

Posted on September 14, 2011