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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 ThuneOn The Money: McConnell says he would give Trump-backed coronavirus deal a Senate vote | Pelosi, Mnuchin see progress, but no breakthrough | Trump, House lawyers return to court in fight over financial records Progress, but no breakthrough, on coronavirus relief McConnell says he would give Trump-backed coronavirus deal a vote in Senate MORE (R-S.D.) and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellDemocrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Hillicon Valley: Senate panel votes to subpoena Big Tech executives | Amazon says over 19,000 workers tested positive for COVID-19 | Democrats demand DHS release report warning of election interference Senate panel votes to subpoena Big Tech executives MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.

“Data privacy should never become a partisan issue,” Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerSenate Republicans offer constitutional amendment to block Supreme Court packing Government efforts to 'fix' social media bias overlooks the destruction of our discourse The Section 230 fight Congress should be having 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 SchatzCoordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon 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 PelosiOn The Money: McConnell says he would give Trump-backed coronavirus deal a Senate vote | Pelosi, Mnuchin see progress, but no breakthrough | Trump, House lawyers return to court in fight over financial records Progress, but no breakthrough, on coronavirus relief McConnell says he would give Trump-backed coronavirus deal a vote in Senate MORE (D-Calif.) has vowed to oppose any legislation that tramples on her home state’s efforts to protect internet users.

Democrat Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraCalifornia Republicans agree not to use unofficial ballot drop boxes Schwarzenegger: California GOP has gone 'off the rails' with unofficial ballot boxes California GOP won't comply with order on unofficial ballot drop boxes 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.