Google takes heat over location tracking in privacy debate

Google takes heat over location tracking in privacy debate
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A top Google executive faced tough questions from a Senate committee on Tuesday about the company's data collection practices as lawmakers vow to impose tougher privacy regulations on tech giants.

The Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Will DeVries, senior policy counsel at Google, over the company’s user location tracking and data practices.

“Do you think the average consumer would be surprised to learn that her location is recorded and sent to Google hundreds of times every day, even when she is not using her phone?” Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHillicon Valley: Lawmakers seek 'time out' on facial recognition tech | DHS asks cybersecurity staff to volunteer for border help | Judge rules Qualcomm broke antitrust law | Bill calls for 5G national security strategy The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Momentum grows to create 'Do Not Track' registry MORE (R-Mo.) asked the executive.

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DeVries argued that it was necessary for Google’s Android operating system to take in some location information, even when users have toggled off location tracking, in order to provide certain services.

But Hawley and others on the panel were not satisfied.

“Here’s my basic concern: Americans did not sign up for this,” he said. “They think that the products that you offer are free — they’re not free. They think that they can opt out of the tracking that you’re performing — they can’t meaningfully opt out.”

Hawley was citing a New York Times article from last year detailing how mobile apps collect data on their users and the marketplace for that location data.

DeVries and other witnesses were called before Tuesday's panel to testify about privacy laws that were recently passed in California and the European Union as Congress crafts a bill to implement the first comprehensive federal privacy law in the U.S.

The tough questions highlighted how the law will need to address a number of thorny issues, including the complicated question of how companies manage location data and whether customers can easily opt out.

Much of the hearing, though, was devoted to a major debate hanging over lawmakers: what rights states will have under a federal privacy framework. The private sector is calling on lawmakers to wipe out California’s law and pre-empt other states from passing their own regulations. They worry about a patchwork of conflicting laws across the nation.

But privacy activists and California’s leaders want their law, which goes into effect next year, to be left alone. 

“I will not support any federal privacy bill that weakens the California standard,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report Jeffrey Rosen officially sworn in as deputy attorney general This week: Democrats, White House set for infrastructure, budget talks MORE (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, in her first comments about her home state’s privacy initiative.

The Senate’s effort to craft the legislation is being led by a bipartisan group in the Senate Commerce Committee, but Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThreat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Graham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats Congress, White House near deal on spending, debt limit MORE (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would play a role.

“The big picture for me is I want to make sure consumers understand what’s happening when they sign up, that they’re basically monetizing you,” Graham said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of both panels and part of the Commerce Committee's working group on privacy, said there is “a bipartisan core of support for adopting a law that regards California as a floor, not a ceiling, in terms of privacy standards for both the expectations of what the standard should be as well as enforcement.”

Across the Capitol, House Democrats are also holding hearings on data privacy legislation and running into the same questions on how to handle state rules.

The hearing on Tuesday comes as the backlash against tech companies is growing in Washington across both parties.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE (D-Mass.), who is running for president, last week proposed an ambitious plan that called for breaking up companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. And when Facebook on Tuesday mistakenly took down her ads promoting the idea, Warren was applauded in some unlikely circles.

“First time I’ve ever retweeted @ewarren,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzJim Carrey fires back at 'Joe McCarthy wanna-be' Cruz Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity GOP senators split over antitrust remedies for big tech MORE (R-Texas) tweeted. “But she’s right—Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech. They shouldn’t be censoring Warren, or anybody else. A serious threat to our democracy.”

The anti-Silicon Valley sentiment has helped to spur the bipartisan push for privacy legislation, and it’s also compelled some Republicans to call for changes to tech companies’ broad protections from legal liabilities. A 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act offers expansive legal protections to internet platforms for content posted by their users.

“You’re neutral platforms; nobody is holding you responsible for what you put up, nobody is holding you responsible for what you take down,” Graham said on Tuesday. “But that’s a big advantage in the law. If you have a newspaper, or a TV station, you can be regulated and you can be sued.”

It’s still unclear what changes Republicans are planning to make to the law if any, or what form the bipartisan privacy bill will take. But lawmakers made it clear at Tuesday's hearing that Silicon Valley is running out of goodwill on Capitol Hill.

“In case anybody had any doubt, privacy is all the rage. Bipartisan,” Blumenthal said. “But as frequently happens the devil really is in the details.”