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 ThuneSchumer blasts 'red flag' gun legislation as 'ineffective cop out' Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill Trump border fight throws curveball into shutdown prospects MORE (R-S.D.) and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.

“Data privacy should never become a partisan issue,” Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks The Hill's Morning Report - How will Trump be received in Dayton and El Paso? Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill 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 Schatz'Medicare for All' complicates Democrats' pitch to retake Senate Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid Booker, Durbin and Leahy introduce bill to ban death penalty 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 PelosiWhy President Trump needs to speak out on Hong Kong Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid 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 leads states in lawsuit over Trump public charge rule Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs California counties file first lawsuit over Trump 'public charge' rule 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.