Congress Is Finally Listening to Consumers on Internet Privacy
What once was routine in Congress has become rare: compromise. But going against the new norm, the House Energy & Commerce Committee released a bipartisan draft of a comprehensive consumer internet privacy bill just before 2019 year-end. Key Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have also joined the discussion.
With countless online privacy abuses, data misuses, and security breaches in recent years, these legislative developments are highly welcome progress.
In the Senate, Commerce Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) recently introduced online privacy protection legislation. Other Democrats who had introduced their own bills — Senators Klobuchar, Markey, and Schatz — endorsed the Cantwell bill. The coalescing of Democratic support around one privacy bill is a major step forward.
On the other side of the aisle, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Chairman of the Commerce Committee, has now put forward a discussion draft reflecting broad areas of commonality with Sen. Cantwell’s bill. For example, both bills give consumers the right to request that inaccurate data about them be removed, and the data collection and use practices of internet companies would be far more transparent under both bills. While the bills differ on matters such as preemption of the states and the availability of citizen suits, a strong foundation has now been set for compromise between the two sides over the areas of disagreement.
This is the way Congress works when it’s performing at its best. A key legislator on each side puts forward legislation that represents the consensus position of that legislator’s party, drawing support from other interested senators or representatives of that party. Then, with the differences between the two sides substantially narrowed, intensive negotiations occur leading to a compromise that can pass with broad bipartisan support. That’s the path the Senate is now taking.
In the House, the Energy & Commerce Committee Democratic and Republican privacy staffs have assembled a bipartisan draft that reflects broad areas of agreement but leaves open the treatment of state preemption and citizen suits. As in the Senate, these will be the major issues for negotiation. Notable progress is being made, but important unresolved issues remain.
There is a need for urgency in finishing negotiations. California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) took effect on January 1, 2020, and enforcement by the California attorney general will begin July 1, which gives federal lawmakers a limited time to act. If Congress lets the opportunity pass it by, the costs will start mounting.
State-based privacy protection measures are also currently pending in numerous other states. A time when online privacy laws change upon crossing a state border is upon us, which will cause widespread consumer confusion and significant compliance difficulties for companies in the internet ecosystem, from edge providers to ISPs. We know that internet users want and deserve one clear, nationally-applied set of privacy protection standards, applicable to all internet companies that collect data from users. A nationwide opinion survey commissioned by the Internet Innovation Alliance and conducted by the polling firm CivicScience confirmed broad support among internet users across all demographics for one uniform federal standard for privacy protection, which only Congress can deliver.
With the positive developments we’ve seen in both the House and Senate over the past several weeks, a bipartisan, consensus-based privacy law is now within reach. The leading Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee have taken major steps to advance legislation that would give consumers long-overdue privacy protections and businesses clear rules of the road for the future, and the House Energy & Commerce Committee has produced a bipartisan draft bill. The groundwork has been laid; it’s time to legislate.
So, count me among those who are optimistic that, with a little hard work and political will, Congress can at last meet the clear national need for strong consumer internet privacy protections — and the sooner, the better. Americans are watching and waiting this election year.
Rick Boucher was a member of the US House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and a partner in the Washington DC office of the law firm Sidley Austin.