Groups urge Congress to prioritize civil rights in privacy bill debate

A coalition of more than 40 advocacy groups is urging Congress to prioritize civil rights as lawmakers launch into a long debate over potential data privacy legislation.  

The open letter from the 43 groups was released shortly after the House and Senate Commerce committees announced hearings later this month on establishing federal internet privacy regulations. The letter, from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and racial justice group Color of Change, is addressed to the top lawmakers on the House and Senate committees overseeing tech and consumer issues. 

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"We, the undersigned members of the civil rights and racial justice community, write to ensure that civil rights retain a fundamental place in the ongoing online privacy debate, hearings, and legislation in your committees," the letter reads.

The groups are pointing to a document compiled in 2014 that laid out a set of civil rights standards for the "era of big data." The years-old document raised concerns about law enforcement using surveillance and data gathering technologies, biased algorithms, ensuring the privacy of government databases, and enhancing individuals' control over their own data.

"In the years since 2014, our groups have continued to raise the alarm as data security and privacy abuses have disproportionately harmed marginalized communities, especially communities of color," the letter reads. 

It lists some of the civil rights abuses that have been committed using technology in the past several years. One example cited is "deceptive voter suppression and misinformation targeting African Americans," in part a reference to research that found Russian trolls disproportionately targeted the African-American community with disinformation seeking to discourage them from voting ahead of the 2016 midterm elections. 

"Platforms and other online services should not be permitted to use consumer data to discriminate against protected classes or deny them opportunities in commerce, housing, and employment, or full participation in our democracy," the letter reads. "Protecting privacy in the era of big data means protecting against uses of consumer information that concentrate harms on marginalized communities while concentrating profits elsewhere." 

The coalition released the letter as the 116th Congress gears up to tackle the hefty goal of a comprehensive data privacy bill.  

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) in a statement on Wednesday said that Congress will be looking "to develop privacy legislation in the coming months." 

Multiple lawmakers have indicated they will be introducing their own privacy or social media bills this year.