Senators ramp up privacy bill work

Senators ramp up privacy bill work
© Stefani Reynolds

Senators are looking to intensify their work on drafting the nation's first consumer privacy bill, amid doubts they are any closer to a breakthrough after months of talks.

At a hearing Wednesday, consumer advocates testified before the Senate Commerce Committee to offer their input on a potential federal privacy framework.

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And a day before, lawmakers in a bipartisan working group met behind closed doors to push ahead with negotiations over a bill. The four-member group was joined by two more lawmakers, Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneNo. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Republicans take aim at Nadler for saying GOP senators complicit in 'cover-up' MORE (R-S.D.) and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenators fret over lack of manpower to build 5G Five tech stories to watch in 2020 Hillicon Valley: House panel unveils draft of privacy bill | Senate committee approves bill to sanction Russia | Dems ask HUD to review use of facial recognition | Uber settles sexual harassment charges for .4M MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.

“Data privacy should never become a partisan issue,” Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — UN calls for probe into alleged Saudi hack of Bezos | Experts see effort to 'silence' Washington Post | Bezos tweets tribute to Khashoggi Senators fret over lack of manpower to build 5G Lawmakers introduce bill to bolster artificial intelligence, quantum computing MORE (R-Miss.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee, said in a statement to The Hill. “Over the past year, this working group has put a tremendous amount of work into data privacy legislation.

"Having Senators Cantwell and Thune join us in this bipartisan effort will help us develop the consensus needed to move this legislation forward in the coming months,” he added.

But the effort faces persistent skepticism that lawmakers are no closer to bridging many of the big divides on privacy policy even after nearly a year of negotiations among the working group.

Reuters reported Tuesday that the two sides are struggling to come to an agreement and that a timetable to release a draft bill by the end of May would likely have to be pushed back.

At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers from both parties laid out their priorities for the draft legislation and laid bare the areas of contention.

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover-up,' 'national disgrace' Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Senate Dems urge Esper to oppose shifting Pentagon money to border wall MORE (D-Hawaii) emphasized that he believes there is a need to give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) more authority to sanction first-time privacy offenders and to give the agency more manpower to police the tech industry.

The FTC revealed in a letter to Congress last month that it only has 40 full-time employees working on privacy and data security.

Wicker took aim at tech companies’ current privacy practices that offer users little control over their own data, hinting that he believes Congress should require websites to allow consumers more options when using their services.

“In developing a federal privacy law the existing 'notice and choice' paradigm also has come under scrutiny,” Wicker said.

“Under notice and choice, businesses provide consumers with notice — typically through a lengthy and wordy privacy policy about their data collection and processing practices," he continued. "Consumers are then expected to make a take it or leave it choice about whether or not to purchase or use a product or service. But is this really a choice?”

Congress began working on a draft privacy bill last year after California passed its own law covering consumer data collection. Republicans and many industry groups are concerned about the possibility of states adopting different privacy regulations and are pushing for Congress to come up with a federal bill that preempts state laws.

But many privacy advocates want to keep the protections enshrined in California. And Democrats have said that they wouldn’t agree to overriding state laws just to make life easier for internet companies.

“I would oppose any effort that preempts state laws so as to weaken protections for consumers,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the working group, said during Wednesday’s hearing. “Federal rules simply cannot be an opportunity to weaken a strong framework that industry resists or opposes.”

Despite the optimism expressed by lawmakers about the negotiations, the issue of preemption remains a major obstacle for the two sides to overcome.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats hammer abuse of power charge, allege Trump put self over country Overnight Energy: Trump issues rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections | Pelosi slams new rule as 'an outrageous assault' | Trump water policy exposes sharp divides Pelosi slams Trump administration's new water rule: 'An outrageous assault' MORE (D-Calif.) has vowed to oppose any legislation that tramples on her home state’s efforts to protect internet users.

Democrat Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraBirds in California's desert are dying Supreme Court denies blue states' effort to expedite ObamaCare challenge Overnight Energy: Appeals court tosses kids' climate suit | California sues Trump over fracking | Oversight finds EPA appointees slow-walked ethics obligations MORE, California’s attorney general, said in a statement on Wednesday that preempting the state’s privacy law “would be a hostile attack on consumers who are trying to protect their privacy.”

“California has taken the first real steps in the nation to protect people’s privacy,” Becerra said. “If the federal government wants to do the same, we’d hope they follow the same rules that doctors follow, which is to do no harm — to set floors, not ceilings, to protect those rights.”

The California bill, which will give users more control over their own data and require companies to offer more transparency, goes into effect in January 2020.

The Senate group says they will push ahead. 

According to Reuters, Republicans had hoped to bring a bill through the committee before the August recess, but the disagreements could push that back.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday how he would characterize the talks, Schatz laughed.

“Constructive and positive,” he responded.