The current size and continued growth of the digital economy requires a new approach to consumer privacy. The more than 200 members of the Business Roundtable—CEOs of America’s leading companies representing nearly every sector of the U.S. economy—have come together to send a clear message to Congress: to protect consumers, promote innovation and advance U.S. competitiveness, the United States urgently needs a comprehensive national privacy law.  

In 1998, when we dialed into the Internet from our desktop computers, the Federal Trade Commission told Congress there were “significant consumer concerns regarding privacy online.” Twenty years later, with technology dramatically opening virtual doors and opportunities, consumers overwhelmingly continue to feel they have little to no control over how companies handle their personal data.

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Consumer trust is vital for the acceptance of digital services. But the fact is, American consumers have no national, fundamental rights with respect to their data online and offline.

Over the past two decades, while Congress passed privacy laws targeted at children and the health care and financial services industries, state governments have been our consumer privacy regulators, creating a patchwork of confusing laws and regulations. These efforts to date have been too fragmented, inconsistent and narrow to fully address consumer concerns, enhance trust and help drive innovation. And the enactment this year of sweeping privacy rules and regulations by the state of California, along with the certainty next year of additional legislation in many other states, together threaten to create new layers of confusion, provide inconsistent protection to consumers and stifle innovations in emerging technologies.

It is time for Congress to enact a national privacy law.

The new approach being called for by Business Roundtable provides clear and comprehensive obligations on companies regarding how consumer data is handled. This framework would be the basis for federal legislation that would harmonize the fragmented privacy regime we face today and do so in a way that advances American innovation and economic competitiveness.

Most important, the Roundtable’s framework is rooted in the recognition that consumers have understandable rights regarding their data.

First, consumers should have the right to transparency regarding a company’s data practices, including the types of personal data that a company collects, the purposes for which this data is used and whether and why personal data is disclosed to third parties.

Second, consumers should have the right to control their data, including choices about how or whether their data is sold or shared with other parties.

Third, consumers should have the right to access and correct inaccuracies in their personal data.

Finally, consumers should have the right to have companies delete their personal data.

Just as important, establishing and protecting these rights requires consistent, effective enforcement mechanisms that provide for meaningful accountability to consumers.

We know data is vital to innovation, our economy and Americans’ everyday lives, and we believe companies can use data to deliver real benefits to consumers. But whether you are a consumer providing data or a company using data, America’s current consumer privacy regime is doing you a disservice, putting consumer trust and innovation at risk. Business Roundtable CEOs believe consumer-focused privacy protection and data-driven innovation can mutually benefit from a strong national law that protects consumers’ privacy rights.

Absent action by Congress, U.S. companies and consumers will be subject not only to a growing, confusing set of state government rules being made across the U.S., but also to different data protection laws from governments beyond our borders in Europe, Brazil and elsewhere. Achieving some measure of global interoperability on data privacy first requires the United States to establish a consistent national standard that eliminates fragmentation within our own borders, gives companies clear direction, and gives consumers more control over their data.

Some will say a national standard for privacy that preempts state and local governments simply weakens the privacy protections already in place in many states like California. But privacy is fundamental, and consumer rights should not fluctuate depending on which state you’re from.

These are complicated issues, and Business Roundtable’s framework is just a first step. It’s now up to U.S. policymakers to figure out the way forward. We can’t afford twenty years, or even twenty months, of uncertainty and inadequate consumer protections. We stand ready to work with members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, as well as consumer protection advocates — to help them answer that call, once and for all.

Joshua Bolten is President & CEO of BRT. Julie Sweet is CEO of North America, Accenture and chairs the BRT policy committee on technology.