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America should demand privacy protection — before it’s too late

an image of the TikTok app logo

Once upon a time, American consumers adopted new tech without stopping to consider the consequences.

The allure of connectivity outweighed misgivings about surrendering our full names, phone numbers, and strong opinions on national politics to an online void we barely understood. We dismissed the threat of privacy violations because, after all, “they (meaning the corporate behemoth that is Big Tech) would never.”

In 2019, we know that they absolutely would, and that they do. The startups of the early 2000s have exploded into empires that live and die by the marketability of Silicon Valley’s most valuable resource: private consumer data.

Now, technophiles and novice Facebookers alike feel vulnerable—and they should. An online presence is by default a vulnerability. Remove the internet from the equation, and few of us would hand over physical copies of our opinion on the latest “Cats” trailer without a good reason, much less sensitive information like our health history or credit card number.

It’s baffling: the American public is constantly bombarded by news of privacy violations and security threats, yet we continue to embrace a digital wild west that has gone international. 

That international factor has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle taking action. For example, Beijing’s best detective is a myriad of invasive apps—most notably, the wildly popular TikTok—marketed to Americans but controlled by Chinese firms. These private platforms are paving the way for the Chinese government to gain unfettered and unsupervised access to children—and it’s happening under our noses.

In a recent letter to ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, I asked some very pointed questions about what the company is doing to ensure that data generated by underage users won’t fall into the hands of foreign agents. In their reply, they revealed plans to raise age limits for livestreaming and in-app purchases, which immediately made me wonder why they hadn’t thought of that from the beginning.

The answer is that, until now, they didn’t have to. Their failure to show up for this week’s scheduled meetings on Capitol Hill—including one in my office—further highlights the company’s tendency to evade accountability at every opportunity.

New tech comes with a built-in learning curve that has been treated like an ethical grace period by firms like TikTok whose business models depend on the collection of as much user data as possible. The threat this poses won’t disappear just because standard privacy policies make the average online consumer’s eyes cross. Americans must demand transparency, and control over their personal data.

Unfortunately, the world is littered with terrible examples of what these demands should look like. If we continue on our current path, we will end up with policies mirroring Europe’s sweeping and woefully restrictive GDPR. Their approach gave governments far too much power and pushed innovation away by pricing out small and midsized businesses. Here in the States, California and Washington have both concocted their own burdensome, inefficient, and prohibitively expensive regulations, with more states likely to follow suit if Congress does not act.

Having worked and legislated in this space since long before the first mainstream thinkpiece was written about data privacy, I know for certain that a balanced approach will protect American consumers from bad actors, while ensuring the innovators can keep innovating.  

I don’t have to look any further than the creative community of Nashville, Tenn., to know that innovation is key to modern economic growth. Venture capitalists and tech gurus are moving in next to our beloved songwriters and musicians, growing Music City’s economy and bringing jobs and opportunity to the almost 100 people who move to that city on any given day.

Fortunately, I have found a cohort of likeminded friends in the United States Senate, who recognize the dangers of both a surveillance state, and hyperregulation. Earlier this year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham asked me to lead the committee’s Tech Task Force—a roundtable-style working group focused on regulating the business of Big Tech. Outside of the traditional congressional hearing, conversation flows easily between members of the Judiciary Committee and top executives from the country’s leading tech companies.

The most important lesson we’ve learned so far is that any regulatory effort must take into account why users are drawn to tech platforms, and how those platforms can in turn create relationships with their users that allow the company to stay afloat and innovating. The most workable scenario will involve an opt-in/opt-out scheme allowing users to control how their most sensitive data is used, while still allowing platforms to use less sensitive data in exchange for an experience the user genuinely enjoys.

Officially recognizing this reality through a lighter legislative touch that prioritizes awareness and consent will allow the free market to pick winners, while ensuring every ping serves as a reminder that the online experience is not, and never will be, free.

Blackburn is a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Tags Lindsey Graham Privacy law

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