DEMOCRATS’ RENEWED control over the House of Representatives will offer an opportunity for bipartisan consensus on one of the country’s most pressing topics — and no, it is not infrastructure this time. The past year has seen an unprecedented focus on the technology industry, and last week’s midterm results have opened the door wider to meaningful action.
Many issues under the tech umbrella animate politicians largely along party lines, and Democrats could use their power come January to champion pet progressive causes. Net-neutrality proponents are already discussing the possibility of congressional Democrats holding hearings on the effect of the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to eliminate Obama-era rules, if not crafting a bill to restore those strictures. Others have clamored for a tougher line on digital advertising rules.
These areas need attention, but a Republican Senate could stymie Democrats’ efforts before any bill reached President Trump’s desk — and failed to earn a signature. Legislative energy would be better spent on an issue in which Republicans and companies alike have incentive to engage: privacy.
California’s data-protection rules take effect in 2020. This gives Congress a hard deadline for passing a national privacy framework. Industry has thrown its support behind regulation, hoping a federal law will preempt stricter state rules. Republicans are likely thinking along the same lines. And now, with their majority, Democrats have the leverage to craft rules that do more than knock down California’s law and put only minimal protections in its place.
In the coming months, senators and representatives alike may come forward with their own versions of proposed privacy rules. Ideally, the principles at their core will be meaningful consumer consent and minimization of data processing to what is essential for companies to carry out a task. Battle lines may also be drawn over data portability, or the ability of customers to take their information from one service to another, and whether consumers have a private right of action against unauthorized access. In any event, the Federal Trade Commission will need increased authority to issue fines and rules of its own.
Privacy is not the only place legislators could find common ground on tech. Cybersecurity, and election security in particular, could earn increased notice next term. Lawmakers should also continue to work toward ensuring that rural areas have access to broadband. Even the least controversial of these topics is complicated for a layperson; legislators on both sides of the aisle have an interest in resurrecting the Office of Technology Assessment to help them muddle through. Democrats might be wary of handing the president a win with a big bill on a hot-button subject. But addressing some of the digital age’s most urgent problems would be a win for all Americans too.