Lawmakers slam tech industry reps at privacy hearing

Lawmakers slam tech industry reps at privacy hearing
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers slammed tech industry representatives at a hearing Wednesday as Congress begins work on drafting a federal privacy law.

The Senate Commerce Committee held its first data privacy hearing this year, with lawmakers questioning the industry's support for sweeping federal privacy standards.

Senators from both sides of the aisle noted that the country's largest tech companies previously resisted federal legislation, but in recent years have come out in support of a federal bill. Critics say the industry backs federal standards to preempt tougher state-level rules. 

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"You have to convince us that your clients really want change in this area," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, addressing the panel of witnesses. "Because the overwhelming evidence so far is that they’re willing to look the other way." 

The witnesses included Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents almost 50 web companies including Amazon, Google and Facebook; and Victoria Espinel, the president of The Software Alliance, a trade group that includes software makers such as Microsoft and Apple.   

The other witnesses included Northeastern University Professor Woodrow Hartzog, a privacy activist; the Retail Industry Leaders Association's Chief Operating Officer Brian Dodge; and Jon Leibowitz, the co-chairman of the 21st Century Privacy Coalition. 

"We now realize this data-sharing is not a bug," Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSocial media summit highlights partisan approaches on tech Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Hillicon Valley: Trump rails against 'terrible bias' at White House social media summit | Twitter hit by hour-long outage | Google admits workers listen to smart device recordings MORE (R-Tenn.) said. "It is a business, it is a business model, and big tech has made a whole lot of money by exploiting the use of this data.

"You’ve spent a lot of money fighting this," she added 

The Software Alliance, Internet Association and other industry trade groups in recent months have come out with their own national privacy legislation frameworks, calling for consumers to have greater access to and control over their data. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Fundraising numbers highlight growing divide in 2020 race Critics slam billion Facebook fine as weak MORE (D-Minn.), a 2020 contender who has made opposing big tech a central part of her platform, said many of those same tech companies had initially opposed the Honest Ads Act, which she introduced in 2017. Her legislation would require platforms to offer more information about people or groups behind political advertisements.

Klobuchar noted that "some of the companies now support" that bill. 

All of those testifying before the panel expressed support for national privacy legislation, though some disagreed on the details, including whether the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should be given rule-making authority and the period of time companies should be given to notify customers of data breaches.

Much of the hearing revolved around the debate over "pre-emption" – whether a federal privacy law would override state privacy laws, including California's recent landmark law requiring websites to offer more transparency and control to users. The California law is seen as the toughest data privacy law in the country and many in the industry have pushed against the rules.

Blumenthal asked whether the California law should be a "floor" for a national law. All of the witnesses answered yes with some conditions.

The preemption question is proving to be a sticking point for lawmakers.

Nearly every Republican at the hearing expressed support for a preemption clause, saying it would ensure consumers and companies aren't forced to navigate a "patchwork" of laws that differ state to state. 

But Democrats asked whether the preemption push was aimed at disarming California's tough privacy law, which is set to take effect in 2020. 

"Are we here just because we don’t like the California law and we just want a federal preemption law to shut it down?" asked Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellFAA nominee advances to full Senate vote Women lawmakers to play in Congressional Baseball Game following Title IX anniversary Hillicon Valley: Democratic state AGs sue to block T-Mobile-Sprint merger | House kicks off tech antitrust probe | Maine law shakes up privacy debate | Senators ask McConnell to bring net neutrality to a vote MORE (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Commerce committee. "I find this effort somewhat disturbing ... This is the first thing that people want to organize here in D.C., is a preemption effort." 

There are more than 90 pending privacy proposals at the state level.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand FAA nominee advances to full Senate vote Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown MORE (R-Miss.) in his opening remarks called for a "preemptive framework" that would ensure consumers "have the same set of robust data protections no matter where they are in the United States."