Those questions have puzzled lawmakers on Capitol Hill for years. A bipartisan cast of lawmakers have long called on Congress to supercharge existing agencies with an influx of cash, while some Democrats have pushed for the creation of a new digitally focused regulator altogether.
But House Democrats this week took a major step toward uniting on an answer by pushing for the nation’s current top data privacy watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission, to get a huge funding boost.
To that end, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday advanced a proposal to create a new privacy bureau at the FTC and set aside $1 billion for the initiative — a roughly 30 percent increase to the agency’s total projected funding over the next decade. The measure is slated to be folded into Democrats’ $3.5 trillion economic package.
It’s a compromise for Democratic leaders, who have offered up competing visions for how the government should bolster its enforcement against privacy abuses, with some arguing no amount of funding is enough to reinforce the FTC.
The idea has been sternly rebuffed by Republican leaders, who are wary of government overreach and creating new federal bureaucracies. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top Republican on House Energy and Commerce, in 2019 said that while she is “committed to strengthening the FTC … a new federal agency is unnecessary.”
On the competition front, some Republicans have gone even farther, suggesting the FTC should relinquish control of antitrust oversight to the Justice Department to streamline the process. That opposition has effectively sealed the fate of proposals to create a new regulator, which would likely need bipartisan support to be signed into law.
At Tuesday’s House markup, one of the Democrats leading the push for a new agency got behind the idea of expanding the FTC’s privacy enforcement, at least for now.
A new bureau is “short of an independent agency, but I think it’s a big step in the right direction,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who introduced legislation in 2019 to create a new regulator.
At the session, lawmakers lamented that, beyond lacking will, the FTC has lacked the resources and staffing to effectively oversee the conduct of the tech sector’s trillion-dollar behemoths. That’s long been a knock on the FTC’s track record policing the tech sector, from both Democrats and Republicans.
While the proposed funding boost may not even the odds entirely, Democrats are largely aligned behind the idea that any added firepower for regulators is a positive step.
“While I certainly feel we need a focused and specialized agency to oversee the digital platforms, a new digital division at the FTC is a good first start in that it recognizes Congress is looking for solutions to the well-identified problems of the digital platforms,” former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler told The Technology 202.
Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director of the privacy advocacy group EPIC, said the proposal would not only allow the agency to build up its staffing capacity and to retain more talent, such as technologists, but it would send “a really clear signal from Congress that they want the FTC to be more active on privacy.”
If the proposal advances out of the full House unscathed, it’ll face its next big test in the Senate, where centrist Democrats are already balking at the size of the reconciliation package and hoping for significant cuts. That could put the privacy language at risk.
“I imagine it will stay intact,” Fitzgerald said. But she cautioned, “Like every other budget item … if things need to get cut, it’ll be one of the pieces that gets looked at.”
And don't expect privacy-minded Republicans to rally around that part of Democrats' massive economic package.
“The $1 billion promised in the Democrat spending bill is more than the current budgets of FTC and FCC combined," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). "Until Congress completes our work creating a national consumer privacy law, this spending puts the cart before the horse.”
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The FTC took aim at Big Tech's small acquisitions at its latest meeting
The Federal Trade Commission announced that Big Tech has made hundreds of small acquisitions in the past decade that weren’t subject to review by federal regulators, Protocol’s Ben Brody reports. The findings from the FTC’s new report on the subject, which studied Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, could increase regulatory scrutiny of Big Tech’s smaller acquisitions.
The report “captures the extent to which these firms have devoted tremendous resources to acquiring start-ups, patent portfolios and entire teams of technologists, and how they were able to do so largely outside of the purview of the antitrust agencies,” said Big Tech critic and FTC Chair Lina Khan, who recommended looking at the FTC’s thresholds for disclosing acquisitions.
Critical internal Facebook research points to a bigger problem at the social media giant
The company pays teams to study its underbelly “only to ignore, downplay, and suppress the results of their research when it proves awkward or troubling,” Will Oremus writes. At least part of the reason for turning its back on the research is Facebook’s culture and organizational structure.
The result is bad press when news organizations like the Wall Street Journal reveal that Facebook suppresses inconvenient internal research.
“I keep talking about how organizational design is a huge problem at Facebook,” former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos tweeted Wednesday, after the Wall Street Journal published the third report in a series on Facebook. “In these cases, the unified product policy/government affairs structure and the isolation of people who care in dedicated integrity teams are the problem. And Zuck,” he wrote, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Human rights-violating artificial intelligence use should be banned, a U.N. official said
United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for the moratorium but stopped short of saying an outright ban on facial recognition technology is necessary, Sammy Westfall reports.
Bachelet’s call came as the U.N. Human Rights Council published a report on the human rights risks of AI such as profiling. The consequences of the unfettered spread of AI technology, Bachelet said, would be “catastrophic.”
Critics say artificial intelligence systems can perpetuate racism and discrimination by using biased data sets. They can also increase police profiling of minorities.
“We cannot afford to continue playing catch-up regarding AI — allowing its use with limited or no boundaries or oversight, and dealing with the almost inevitable human rights consequences after the fact,” Bachelet said.
Rant and rave
Microsoft is allowing consumers to get rid of passwords from their accounts in what they're calling “the passwordless future.” Some, like Twilio security architect Ian Coldwater, drew attention to vulnerabilities in Microsoft software that allow hackers to get into systems:
Former T-Mobile CEO John Legere:
Inside the industry
- Former Undersecretary of State Keith Krach and former U.S. Agency for International Development deputy administrator Bonnie Glick speak at a Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue event on semiconductors and supply chains on Sept. 21 at 9:10 a.m.
- SEC chairman Gary Gensler discusses cryptocurrencies at a Washington Post Live event on Sept. 21 at noon.