Good afternoon.  It’s such a pleasure to be back here with you all.  Thank you, Steve, for inviting me back this year, and thanks to Ed for that thoughtful introduction.

Consumer Reports has been so fortunate to rely on Ed’s leadership as part of our board for nearly a decade now, and this movement has been fortunate to count Ed as a leader for much longer than that through his incredible work with PIRG.

I’m sorry to hear that Senator Booker cancelled—he is a true champion for consumers, and one of the most inspirational leaders working in Washington today.  But a little-known fact: Senator Booker and I were separated at birth.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking—we’re both tall.  But we also both call Newark home, we both did our graduate school at Yale . . . all I need to do now is save a few folks from burning buildings and I’ll have the Booker trifecta.

The last time I was here at the Consumer Assembly was two years ago, and at that time I was six months into a new role as President and CEO of Consumer Reports.  When I spoke with you then, I shared the one thing that, more than anything else, was keeping me up at night: relevance—the relevance of our movement, of our common mission, and of the place of consumers in a digital age.

A lot has changed since then.  We’ve faced new challenges, including unprecedented threats to consumer well-being here in Washington.  And when it comes to the policy fights we’ve been discussing this week, this is a time to redouble our efforts.

That’s why, at CR, we knew we needed to bring a new leader to that front.  And I could not be more thrilled that Jessica Rich has joined us.  Many of you know Jessica from her time leading the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, and starting now, she’ll be bringing her extraordinary leadership and experience to bear as our new VP of Consumer Policy and Mobilization.

Jessica is joining us at a critical moment, because, as we all know, the world has changed abruptly in ways we didn’t foresee.  Institutions are being tested.  Political norms are crumbling.  And trust in both the marketplace and in information itself has eroded to a startling degree.

Americans have been introduced to terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” which are now flooding the consumer experience, contaminating everything from product reviews to politics and journalism.  But the truth is, these concepts are not new—we’ve been here before.

In fact, “fake news” was the reason that Consumer Reports was founded 80 years ago at the dawn of the advertising age.  It’s the reason so many of the organizations we represent came to exist.

So while relevance still keeps me up at night, it’s also stunning to see how world events have put our mission front and center in the lives of consumers—and not entirely in the ways that we hoped.

We’ve seen agencies and rules under siege  . . . innovations that have brought us into uncharted consumer protection territory . . .  and a democracy muddied by misinformation.  But, perhaps most importantly of all, we’ve also seen a citizenry that has begun to stand up and speak out—reawakening the incredible, dormant power of individual choices and voices.

With all of that happening in town halls and on front pages, it seems like the consumer movement ought to be more relevant to the lives of everyday Americans today than we’ve ever been before.  So: are we?

Two years ago, the challenges we faced were mostly strategic in nature.  How could we engage new and diverse communities—the people not in this room?  How could we show up in the age of social media?  How could we reach across political divides and national borders?

We’re still trying to meet those goals, but, today, our greatest challenges aren’t strategic—they’re existential.  We no longer have to wonder if we’re living through an historic turning point for consumers.  The only question is which direction that turn will take us.

Will it mark a decline of consumer influence—as a government turns its back on people, and as the breakneck speed of innovation leaves consumer protection in the dust?

Or will it mark the birth of a new era of consumer power?

Every inflection point in the history of our movement has come on the heels of an extraordinary threat.  Industrial exploitation and corruption made way for the Progressive Era.  In the wake of the Great Depression came the New Deal.  The proliferation of rampant chemical use brought us Silent Spring and the EPA.  And the list goes on.

The thing about those moments is that they don’t announce themselves.  The victories don’t assemble themselves spontaneously.  It’s up to us—and to the public—to recognize those moments, and to turn extraordinary threats into breathtaking opportunities.

But taking on those threats begins as it always does: by listening, and by taking stock of the landscape.  Where are consumers today?  They are on Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple—so much of the blood is flowing through those four dominant platforms.

These digital giants have amassed unprecedented influence, to the point where they could easily reshape our society with the shifting of an algorithm.  They are building monopolies of power, of communication, of data, and of digital experience.

And they aren’t the only ones.  Broadband carriers have the potential to access incredible amounts of our personal information—they are consolidating power and building monopolies of their own.  Hopefully, the public is gaining awareness about that trend—and some of you may have seen John Oliver’s segment on net neutrality this week.  But the response of our government has been to roll back consumer choices around how their data is collected and sold.

All of this presents serious risks for consumers.  We have to grapple with this reality, and help the public grapple with it.

We need to acknowledge that it isn’t just technology that has grown more complex.  The entire consumer experience has, too—and those digital giants are redefining that journey.  They are rewiring the ways that people receive and share information, and we need to find our place and impose ourselves in that reality.

If that weren’t daunting enough, here’s the kicker: a lot of what we’ve won for consumers in the past doesn’t really apply to this new world.  The challenges we’re facing today metastasize faster than any we’ve ever known.

But people are counting on us to help build a digital world they can trust.  We have to find a way.

So, yes, we have to engage, protect, and defend consumers in the day-to-day fights we face.  But we also have to advance, build, and invest, just like those digital giants do.  At CR, we don’t have the luxury of not engaging with Google and Amazon.  If we don’t show up at the point of sale, we’re failing consumers.  So we need to be there, ensuring that open standards and fierce competition are keeping the playing field level, so that consumer power can be asserted in the digital marketplace.

A recent CR survey found that 70 percent of Americans lack confidence that their personal data is private and secure—a five percent increase since January.

We recognized the implications of that number—and the moment that it presented.  That's why, in March, CR announced a new data privacy and security effort.  This initiative will seek to ensure that consumers have what they need—information and influence—to effectively wield their voices and choices as instruments of power in the rapidly growing marketplace of connected products, the Internet of things.

In 2016, there were an estimated 6.4 billion connected things in use.  By 2020, that number is expected to hit more than 20 billion.  A recent analysis found that, of all the products that could be connected to the Internet, only 0.06 percent currently are—we are only about six ten-thousandths of the way down the IoT road.  And, to top it all off, according to another recent study by Accenture, more than 85 percent of consumers haven’t heard of the Internet of Things—even though nearly all of us interact with it in some way every day.

Yesterday, we created standards around seatbelts, clean air, and credit card terms.  Today, we have to create standards on a new frontier.  We teamed up with a group of leading cybersecurity experts to assess how responsibly connected devices handle consumers’ personal data.  

Why is this work so important?  Because we don’t have standards and rules adequate to meet today’s challenges.  And unlike in the past, when we did much of this work behind closed doors in our labs, today we are developing these standards in an open source and collaborative way.

In time, our hope is that this will allow consumers to have knowledge they can trust—so that they can make smart choices to protect their interests.  It will also promote transparency and shine a light on the best and worst practices—putting pressure on companies to compete on privacy and security the way they compete on quality and price.

We know that we have entered a fundamentally different era of solving problems.  Changes in Washington have closed off many of the avenues to serving the consumer interest that all of us have relied on for so long.  Even before the new administration arrived, partisan entrenchment had been clogging those arteries more and more.

Is it a serious threat, having to contend with an unforgiving landscape here in Washington?  Is it a threat when the EPA and the CFPB come under attack?  Is it a threat when the FTC, the FCC, and other consumer watchdogs get rewired in opposition to the missions they were born to serve?  Of course it is.

Those are the easy questions, but here is the hard one: is it also an opportunity?

If consumer power can’t emerge from Washington, it will have to emerge from consumers themselves.  And this moment is an opportunity to bend the arc of the consumer movement—to make it something larger and loftier than the sum of our tactics and strategies.

On the campaign trail in 1960, JFK—a great champion of our movement—warned that America must not be like the French Revolution-era politician who, watching the masses march past his window, said: “There go my people . . . I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them.”

Some may think that it’s our job to lead consumers down a path.

But before we head down that path, we need to ask ourselves, “are they with us.  Are we listening to them?”  All of them, not just those in our familiar corner.  Because whether we are listening or not, or meeting them where they are, make no mistake: the power is already theirs.  It belongs to them—not us.

If you don’t believe that consumer voices are powerful, try tuning in to the O’Reilly Factor tonight.

If you don’t believe that consumer choices are powerful, take a look at United’s stock price.

People are waking up to the awesome power they hold—they are already marching.  So what is our role in all this?

We can’t simply wait for corporate missteps. There is too much about the market that is not transparent, so how do we make what is not visible to consumers as egregious as what goes viral?  That is where we are struggling, and that is where CR is working hard to shine a light and to reach consumers in new ways.  To build community with them, not for them.   There is no secret formula for that—we all need to experiment.

The work we all do is, fundamentally, about real people: their lives, their aspirations, and their needs.

Being there, alongside them, connecting them, equipping them with facts and hard truths that compel them . . . That’s how we grow this movement.  That’s how we stay relevant in the 21st century.  That’s how we turn extraordinary threats into breathtaking opportunities.

I believe that this is our mission today, and I consider myself so fortunate to count you all as partners.  I am so grateful to each and every one of you for the work you do on behalf of consumers.  We are counting on you, and I know you count on CR.  Thank you again for allowing me to be with you here today.