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The Technology 202: Sen. Josh Hawley has a new bill to let consumers opt out of pervasive tracking

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Sen. Josh Hawley wants to make opting out of online tracking as easy as adding your number to the “Do Not Call” list.

Hawley, a Missouri Republican, will introduce legislation on Tuesday to create a “Do Not Track” program: It would require companies to limit data collection on Americans who check a setting in their web browsers or install a special app on their phones. 

It would also impose hefty fines on companies that, after people opt out, continue the controversial but pervasive practice of collecting broad data about consumers' browsing activity or building highly customized profiles about them. Such profiles are commonly used to serve targeted advertisements. 

Past initiatives to create “Do Not Track” options have failed to stop companies' tracking because they were voluntary, Hawley said, promising this bill would have teeth and finally give consumers more control over how business uses their data. 

“We’ve tried the voluntary model,” Hawley said in an interview. “It’s time to stop this two-step.”

Hawley is pushing for this legislation as he aims to raise awareness on Capitol Hill about the shadowy ways companies follow consumers online — sometimes collecting data about consumers even after they think they've opted out. Hawley, a freshman, is making it his mission to fight Big Tech on Capitol Hill, and the fines he's proposing are the latest signal that Washington is seeking tougher penalties against Silicon Valley. 

Hawley also thinks a Do Not Track initiative should be part of any federal privacy legislation. The senator made waves in Congress on this issue after a fiery exchange Google executive Will DeVries earlier this year, when Hawley slammed the company for collecting location data about Android users even when location history is turned off. His office says this bill also stems from concerns about Facebook's practice of collecting data from people online even if they don't have an account with the service, which is known in the industry as building “shadow profiles.” 

Hawley's bill does not yet have any co-sponsors, but it's likely an issue that could earn support across the aisle. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced similar legislation in 2011 though the bill languished in Congress. The Obama administration's Federal Trade Commission also supported the creation of a Do Not Track setting — but it ultimately did not result in any requirements. 

Hawley thinks that this bill will be able to succeed where the Obama-era initiative fell short. The FTC at the time created a working group to develop a Do Not Track button, but it leaned heavily on the tech industry to come up with the best way to implement Do Not Track. It turned acrimonious as there was infighting within the group about what “tracking” means. 

Browser makers like Microsoft and Mozilla have also tried to implement Do Not Track buttons, which notify advertisers and websites that a person does not want to be tracked. But there’s currently no way to enforce it, and advertisers can continue to track people even with the setting enabled.

That’s why Hawley thinks there needs to be an actual law on the books. His bill would also restrict companies from transferring the data they collect about consumers to other companies if they activate Do Not Track. Companies would also have to let consumers know they have these privacy rights to opt out of such tracking.

If companies knowingly fail to comply with these rules, they could face penalties of up to $1,000 per day per person. But to be sure the fines pack a punch — the minimum fine for violations is not less than $100,000. Even if companies are found not to knowingly break the law, they would face penalties of $50 per day per person for negligence.

To be sure, recent history shows that efforts to get companies to change their behavior are tricky. A model for this legislation — the Do Not Call registry — was created in 2003 to help consumers limit unwanted calls they are receiving from telemarketers. But it has proved ineffective in protecting them from an onslaught of robocalls in recent years. 

Hawley says he's encouraged by the prospects of change as there's been a significant shift in attitudes toward the tech industry in Washington — and scrutiny of privacy issues in both parties. 

“There is a dawning awareness these big tech companies pose a new but unique threat to consumer privacy, free speech and the future of our economy that we’re just beginning to get our hands and our heads around,” Hawley told me.


BITS: Google halted its business with Huawei that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services, except when available via open source, according to Angela Moon of Reuters. The move follows a decision by the Trump administration last week to add Huawei to the "entities list," which could effectively blacklist Huawei from working with U.S. suppliers. 

“We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” a Google spokesperson told Reuters.

“For users of our services, Google Play and the security protections from Google Play Protect will continue to function on existing Huawei devices,” the spokesperson also told Reuters, without giving further details.

Current holders of Huawei smartphones with Google apps will still be able to download apps and updates, according to Reuters. But Huawei will immediately lose access to Google's Android operating system. Future versions of the phones running Android will also lose common Google-operated apps, such as YouTube and Gmail. 

Chipmakers including Intel Corp., Qualcomm Inc. Xilinx Inc. and Broadcom Inc. have told their employees they will not supply Hawei until further notice, according to Bloomberg's Ian King, Mark Bergen and Ben Brody. 

NIBBLES: U.S. intelligence officials have been briefing Silicon Valley technology executives about the risks of doing business in China, according to The Verge's James Vincent.

The briefings -- held with tech companies, universities and venture capitalists in California and Washington -- include warnings about the threat of cyber attacks and the theft of intellectual property. They're the latest signal of the tensions between the U.S. government and Beijing. 

“The Chinese government and Communist party pose the greatest long-term threat to US economic and national security,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told the Financial Times about the briefings, which he helped organize. “It’s important that US companies, universities, and trade organizations understand fully that threat.”

The intelligence officials are at times sharing classified information in the briefings, which began last October. Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and other top intelligence community officials are giving the briefings. 

BYTES: Uber's initial public offering proved to be a setback in its efforts to clean up its corporate culture, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui writes. The company had to shut down a party at a satellite California office, and at least one employee resigned, according to current and former employees. 

The celebrations kicked off with company-provided mimosas, and employees said the event "made them feel uncomfortable and seemed immature," Faiz writes, especially as the company's stock price plunged. It also was a reminder of a more toxic company culture that Uber has been trying to fix. 

“Old Uber hid themselves until today apparently,” one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak publicly, told Faiz.

Uber has been trying to repair its image after female employees accused the company of failing to address allegations of sexual harassment over the last two years and supporting a "tech bro" culture. Uber hired a former U.S. attorney general to conduct a study of its workplace culture, among other remedies. That 13-page study recommended the company limit the availability of alcohol in the workplace and de-emphasizing alcohol as a component of work events. 


-- Tech news from the private sector:

Tesla Model 3 Autopilot was active before deadly collision, federal investigators say (Hamza Shaban)

Facebook’s A.I. Whiz Now Faces the Task of Cleaning It Up. Sometimes That Brings Him to Tears. (New York Times)

‘Make him famous in a different way’: In this popular mobile game, you kill a journalist (Angela Fritz)

Tech Jobs Lead to the Middle Class. Just Not for the Masses. (New York Times)


-- Tech news from the public sector:

Social Media Pollution, a Huge Problem in the Last Election, Could Be Worse in 2020 (New York Times)

SpaceX is suing the government once again, but the reason is a secret (Christian Davenport)

White House campaign to collect data on social media bias raises free speech, privacy alarms, experts say (Tony Romm)


-- Tech news generating buzz online:

Not Even Apple Can Clean Up the Mess of Streaming TV (Wall Street Journal)

Top ‘Live-Streamers’ Get $50,000 an Hour to Play New Videogames Online (Wall Street Journal)

The Newest TikTok Celebrities: Security Guards Passing the Time (Wall Street Journal)


Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered a commencement speech at Tulane University May 18, and said his generation failed on climate change. (Video: Reuters)