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Did the CFPB follow PRA requirements in issuing its Big Tech orders?

BY: Consumer Finance Team

On October 21, the CFPB issued a series of orders to “collect information on the business practices of large technology companies operating payments systems in the United States.”

The CFPB sent the orders to six companies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, PayPal, and Square. In a statement accompanying the press release announcing the orders, Director Chopra described the CFPB’s action as an “inquiry into big tech payment platforms” and stated that he had ordered “six technology platforms offering payment services” to turn over information about their products, plans and practices. Responses from the companies to the CFPB orders are due by December 15.

The CFPB issued the orders pursuant to Section 1022(c)(4) of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), its so-called market monitoring authority. See 12 U.S.C. 5512(c). This authority permits the CFPB to collect information regarding the activities of “covered persons” (a defined term) for the purpose of monitoring markets for risks to consumers in the offering or provision of “consumer financial products or services” (another defined term). This jurisdictional limitation is important – the CFPB cannot issue these orders to any company in the country; the orders may only be sent to companies that are engaged in offering or providing financial services (or that are service providers to those companies). Hence the CFPB’s necessary and intentional focus on large technology companies operating payments systems in the United States, rather than all technology companies.

Importantly, CFPB information collections under Section 1022(c)(4) of the CFPA are not exempt from the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) of 1995. See 44 U.S.C. 3501 et seq. PRA requires that agencies obtain Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval before requesting most types of information from the public. See 5 C.F.R. 1320.5(a). As part of the general PRA review process, agencies must seek two rounds of public comment regarding a proposed information collection for a combined minimum of 90 days.

In reviewing an agency’s information collection request, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) will determine among other things whether the request is necessary for the proper performance of the agency’s functions, is not duplicative of information otherwise accessible to the agency, and has practical utility. See 5 C.F.R. 1320.5(d). If OIRA approves the agency’s information collection request, OMB will issue the agency a unique control number. An agency may not conduct or sponsor and a person is not required to respond to a collection of information unless it displays a currently valid OMB control number. See 5 C.F.R. 1320.5(b).

The PRA and OMB’s implementing regulation each define “collection of information” to mean obtaining answers to identical questions posed to “ten or more persons” within a twelve-month period. See 44 U.S.C. 3502(3) and 5 C.F.R  1320.3(c). This means that PRA requirements generally do not apply to information collected from nine or fewer institutions. However, OMB regulations further specify that “[a]ny collection of information addressed to all or a substantial majority of an industry is presumed to involve ten or more persons.” See 5 CFR 1320.3(c)(4)(ii). OMB guidance provides:

“All such collections require OMB review and approval. Agencies may have evidence showing that this presumption is incorrect in a specific situation. In such a case, the agency may proceed with the collection without seeking OMB approval. Upon OMB request, however, the agency needs to provide that evidence to OMB and needs to abide by OMB’s determination as to whether the collection of information requires OMB approval.” See OIRA, “The PRA of 1995: Implementing Guidance for OMB Review of Agency Information Collection,” Draft, Ch. II.C.3 (August 16, 1999).

The CFPB did not seek public comment on its proposed information collection before issuing its October 21st orders, and does not appear to have obtained OMB approval of its proposed information collection prior to issuing its October 21 orders. The reason it did not do so appears to be because it issued orders to only six companies, which are fewer than the ten institutions necessary for mandatory application of the PRA. However, the question remains whether the six institutions (which the CFPB described as “Tech Giants” in its press release) collectively represent a “substantial majority” of the industry identified by the CFPB (i.e., “large technology companies operating payments systems in the United States”).

While it is not clear from OMB regulations or guidance what proportion of an industry would constitute a “substantial majority” for PRA purposes, it is not inconceivable that the combined size and market share of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, PayPal and Square might constitute a substantial majority of the “big tech payment platforms” industry. If this is the case, OMB rules create a presumption that the CFPB’s October 21st orders are subject to the PRA. Under normal circumstances, when considering a proposed information collection, CFPB staff are expected to consult with the agency’s OIRA desk officer as appropriate and the CFPB’s PRA officer will also offer CFPB leadership an independent opinion regarding the applicability of the PRA. Additionally, the CFPB may have prepared evidence for submission to OMB to rebut the presumption that its proposed information collection is subject to the PRA. However, nothing in the CFPB’s press release, sample order, Director’s statement or November 1 request for comment address the applicability of the PRA to the information sought from the six companies.

Take-Away: If the PRA applies to the CFPB’s October 21st orders, there are two significant consequences. First, without an OMB-approved control number attached to the orders, the recipients are under no legal obligation to respond to the CFPB. Second, contrary to the statutory purposes of the PRA articulated by Congress, the public will have been deprived of the meaningful opportunity to provide comment regarding the proposed orders in advance of their issuance. Such comments would foreseeably focus on important considerations raised by the proposal, including for instance the utility of the information being sought and the logical nexus between demands for internal memoranda relating to potential future business plans and the CFPB’s limited authority to monitor for present risks to consumers in the current offering or provision of consumer financial products and services. Such commentary, if sought and received by the CFPB, could only help it craft its orders in a way that achieves its goals while remaining faithful to the statutory purposes of the PRA. In as much as the CFPB’s novel use of its Section 1022(c)(4) authority creates a precedent for the future, additional transparency from the CFPB regarding the application of the PRA to its October 21st orders may be warranted, and would undoubtedly be welcome before December 15.

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