GOP senator scolds FTC for 'toothless' response to privacy scandals

GOP senator scolds FTC for 'toothless' response to privacy scandals
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyIs there internet life after thirty? Republicans face critical test of integrity on drug price controls Hillicon Valley: Facebook releases audit on bias claims | Audit fails to calm critics | Federal agencies hit with fewer cyberattacks in 2018 | Huawei founder says company faces 'live or die' moment MORE (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Monday slammed the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) response to privacy scandals at Google and Facebook as "toothless" in a letter to the agency's chairman.

Hawley, a freshman, has made his mark as one of the Republican Party's most vocal tech critics since he started in Congress. His letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons comes one day before the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on data privacy. 

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"Any robust definition of consumer welfare must acknowledge that [Google and Facebook] have harmed consumers by conditioning participation ... on giving away enormous — and growing — amounts of personal information," Hawley wrote. "Yet the approach the FTC has taken to these issues has been toothless." 

Lawmakers and consumer advocates have increasingly placed a spotlight on the FTC in recent years, slamming the agency's failure to rein in the tech giants' data-collection practices. The agency is tasked with probing whether tech companies adhere to their own privacy policies, but FTC regulators are unable to fine companies for first-time offenses. 

Even Simons, the Republican FTC chairman, in a New York Times interview last week criticized the FTC's authority as overly narrow, saying legislators who outlined its powers 100 years ago "were not thinking about data security and privacy issues."

Some lawmakers have brought up the possibility of broadening the FTC's authority as Republicans and Democrats begin the work of drafting data privacy legislation this year. 

Hawley, though, appeared to question whether the FTC was doing enough with the powers it has.

"I appreciate well the limits of the FTC, and Congress bears primary responsibility for this and other matters," Hawley wrote. "But I am concerned that the FTC has not investigated these companies and enforced the law as vigorously as it should." 

The Missouri Republican wrote that Google and Facebook have "failed" the American people, citing instances in which the companies have collected massive amounts of sensitive information about users, including their location and how they use the apps on their phone. 

"These companies have failed us," Hawley wrote. "Washington has failed us. The FTC has a special role to play in protecting consumers, but it too has failed us." 

At a recent hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said any comprehensive privacy bill would likely beef up the FTC's authority, though there was some disagreement over what that would look like.

Hawley, at a Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing last week, criticized the "creepy new revelation[s]" about tech giants' handling of user data, saying it was "only natural" that Americans would want some restraints on the information these companies collect on them.

"For too long, our nation has put off accounting for the price we paid in return for the benefits of the online platforms that now dominate American culture and industry," Hawley wrote in the letter to the FTC. "These debates cross party lines, implicating election integrity, free speech, privacy, competition and many other issues.

"But these debates include a central, shared concern that the new custodians of once-diffuse information have abused the power they amassed and neglected their responsibilities," he added. 

The letter comes as the FTC is reportedly negotiating a record fine against Facebook over its handling of user data. So far, the largest penalty the FTC has leveled against a tech company was a $22 million fine against Google in 2012.