Congress Must Act to Protect Americans' Privacy

Congress Must Act to Protect Americans' Privacy
(AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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Protecting Americans’ data privacy has never been more important. Millions of Americans are relying on internet services to purchase basic household items, do their jobs, and stay connected with family and friends during the COVID-19 crisis. But even before the pandemic, brick and mortar stores, and main street businesses were collecting and using consumer data to increase sales and manage inventory, and they are increasingly relying on online tools to grow their businesses and deliver products to customers. This increased reliance on online services creates opportunities for people to remain connected with what’s important to them but also underscores the critical need for a federal privacy law that protects all Americans’ data equally. 


State legislatures throughout the country have been busy examining, and in some cases passing, data privacy reforms. However, as we’ve seen with the wide variety of state orders regarding social distancing during the ongoing pandemic, this disparate approach can create a muddled situation that threatens to deepen — rather than ameliorate — the problem. 


Commerce does not stop at state lines and neither should American’s privacy protections. That’s why the only viable, long-term solution is an economy-wide, federal law that requires companies in all industries to maintain transparent privacy practices, and puts consumers in control of the data they choose to share. 


Anything less than a comprehensive, national approach will simply fall short when reforms are put into practice. In today’s patchwork landscape, most Americans are not protected by a state privacy law. In some cases, the privacy laws of neighboring states such as Nevada and California differ in very basic ways, creating confusion for consumers who live in one state and purchase products or services from companies located just across the border, especially where the relevant laws conflict with one another. 


Conversely, a federal standard will ensure that consumers benefit from the same protections across industries and state lines, while also providing businesses with the certainty they need to operate. As policymakers in DC continue to debate the merits of various federal proposals, the nation’s leading internet platforms are developing tools and resources to address the constantly evolving threats to consumer data privacy. 


Protecting personal information has always been a top priority for the internet industry because people won’t feel comfortable using services to communicate or engage in transactions if they aren’t reasonably confident that their information is secure. If a consumer gets an unwanted email from an e-commerce service, they can unsubscribe with just a few clicks. They can also instantly change the information they’ve provided to online companies — such as their mailing address or credit card information — or delete their profile if they don’t want to use the service anymore. In the case of data brokers, however, that same customer has no direct relationship with companies that are collecting and selling their personal information to the highest bidder, and they have very few, convoluted options to remove their information from those companies’ databases. 


Comprehensive data privacy legislation must give everyone in every state the ability to access, correct, delete, and download the data they’ve provided to any company. And Americans should settle for nothing less. 


All of our lives have changed in the last few months, and policymakers in DC are rightfully focused on alleviating the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. But as we overcome the most urgent challenges created by the pandemic, the internet industry looks forward to working with Congress to enact the comprehensive federal privacy law that all Americans need and deserve. 


Jon Berroya is Internet Association Interim President and CEO.

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