Officials say there’s momentum behind the cause — Democrats in both the House and Senate are pushing to give the nation’s top consumer privacy watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission, a major boost in funding and to stand up a bureau to better police data mishaps, breaches and other abuses, even as the push to pass a federal privacy law has languished.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the panel is planning two upcoming hearings on the issue — including a session slated for Wednesday — and that more may be on the way.
“We want to talk about what a privacy and data security bureau, which is what we think we would be standing up with this money, what would that do to help us in this,” Cantwell said of the hearing, adding that the panel might “at some point” hear from tech companies.
But while there’s universal agreement that Congress needs to do more than talking — specifically, setting rules around the collection and use of consumer data — action has remained elusive. Despite a litany of privacy scandals in Silicon Valley, legislation has been stagnating for years.
Privacy is a rare unifying tech issue for Capitol Hill. On the competition front, there’s disagreement within both the Democratic and Republican parties about whether legislation to update U.S. antitrust laws is even needed. On the content front, while a broad swath of lawmakers say the tech industry’s liability protections need to be revamped, there’s little consensus on how, even when it comes to curbing universally condemned material, like child exploitation.
Not so much on privacy. Throw a stone anywhere on Capitol Hill and you’ll hit a lawmaker who wishes federal privacy standards had been passed years ago. But the push has been endlessly bogged down amid disputes over whether a national law should override state measures and whether it should give consumers a right to sue companies over privacy breaches. It's taken a backseat to issues seen as more pressing time and time again.
Asked about whether there’s hope they can finally get past that impasse, Cantwell replied, “I don’t know that they’ve been at an impasse so much as we’ve been so busy with other things.”
But she added, “A new administration coming into town gives us new opportunities that we didn’t have before so we’re going to try to keep making progress.”
In lieu of progress on a new law more than nine months into the Biden era, however, there are partisan divisions about the federal government’s current plans.
A group of Democrats recently wrote a letter urging the Federal Trade Commission, the recipient of their proposed funding boost, to start rule-making on privacy, a process that could give the agency more leeway to craft and enforce standards around what constitutes a privacy violation. Coupled with more funding and the nomination of a prominent privacy hawk to the commission, that could significantly dial up the FTC’s enforcement actions against data abuses.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a key lawmaker in debates on competition and privacy, said in an interview this week that it is “very important” for the Senate to advance the proposal to create a new privacy bureau at the FTC and allocate $1 billion in additional funding to the agency.
Republicans say Democrats have it all twisted: Congress should first set privacy rules so that regulators can enforce them. And the funding talk is getting ahead of itself.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican and former chair of Cantwell’s panel, called the plan to first boost funding and create a new privacy bureau at the FTC “backward” and said it was “getting the cart before the horse” during a brief interview Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
In an emailed statement, Wicker later added that he would “welcome bipartisan discussions on increasing resources to the FTC to enforce a data privacy law,” but, “Anything short of congressional action would create significant regulatory uncertainty for businesses and confuse consumers about the scope and durability of their privacy rights.”
Cantwell argued that it’s not an either-or scenario. “Obviously we think there’s some things [regulators] could be doing by rule-making, and then there are things that we think we should be doing by passing privacy legislation,” she said.
Unless Congress starts making legislating on privacy a priority, however, regulators and consumers alike will have to settle for either-or. Lawmakers aren’t giving up just yet, though.
“Ah, hope springs eternal,” Wicker quipped.
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Antitrust enforcer Lina Khan laid out her vision and priorities at the FTC
Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan wants the FTC to go after “rampant consolidation” and dominance across industries, look into industry middlemen and “extractive business models” and take aim at contracts that “constitute unfair methods of competition or unfair or deceptive practices.”
Khan, who President Biden named to lead the FTC in June, also explained that the commission needs to look at harms holistically and focus on root causes, not just their effects. The FTC also should adopt a “more rigorous and empiricism-driven approach” toward looking at markets, she wrote. She also warned that the FTC needs to be proactive in anticipating future issues and taking quick action. And the commission needs to be democratized, she concluded.
Khan also called on the FTC to take on additional staffers like technologists, a sign that wants the FTC to look closely at the role technology plays in Americans’ lives.
U.S. and European officials plan to announce cooperation on reining in Big Tech and issues like online hate speech
Top officials could make an announcement about it when U.S. and European officials meet in Pittsburgh next week, Reuters’ Nandita Bose reports. One of the U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council’s 10 working groups will be focused on Big Tech, according to a draft memo.
“We have identified common issues of concern around gatekeeper power by major platforms and the responsibility of online intermediaries,” the memo says, also raising issues like misinformation, content moderation, competition, algorithmic amplification and the data researchers are able to access.
The White House declined to comment to Reuters. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Workplace surveillance technology is expected to persist even after the pandemic, the Help Desk warns
Workers are being forced to use facial recognition and other surveillance technology so their employers can keep tabs on them remotely, Danielle Abril and Drew Harwell report. But creepy and glitchy technology will get more sophisticated and pervasive, they warn.
“The company thinks it’s an added layer of protection of them, but for the employee it’s just an added layer of stress,” said attorney Kerrie Krutchik, who had to have her face scanned to work and said she wouldn’t consent to it again. “You’re on your guard all day, feeling like your privacy is invaded, and still, it’s like: They don’t trust you.”
Rant and rave
The European Commission rolled out a new proposal for a USB-C ports to be used for all types of personal electronics:
Microsoft's Christina Warren:
Web developer and teacher Harrison Kinsley:
The American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis:
Inside the industry
- A House Science Committee panel holds a hearing on researching disinformation on social media on Sept. 28 at 10 a.m.
- The House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee holds a hearing on modern antitrust policy on Sept. 28 at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds a hearing on replacing legacy government IT systems on Sept. 28 at 2:30 p.m.
- Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) speak at CTIA’s two-day 5G Summit, which begins Sept. 29.
- The Senate Commerce Committee holds a consumer privacy hearing on Sept. 29 at 10 a.m.
- Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security officials discuss facial recognition technology at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Sept. 29 at 3 p.m.
- Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis testifies before a Senate Commerce Committee panel on Sept. 30 at 10:30 a.m.