Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms

Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms
© Greg Nash

A pair of California Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a tough privacy bill that would significantly curtail Silicon Valley's control over all Americans' personal information. 

The bill, introduced by Reps. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties | FCC formally approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill | AT&T in M settlement with FTC Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms Bipartisan group reveals agricultural worker immigration bill MORE (D-Calif.) and Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooDemocrats demand FCC act over leak of phone location data Hillicon Valley: TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties | FCC formally approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill | AT&T in M settlement with FTC Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms MORE (D-Calif.), would create a new federal agency to oversee how the country's largest and most powerful tech companies amass and use data about their millions of users across the U.S. It would also grant all users expansive rights over their data.

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"Our congressional districts are the epicenter of the technological revolution and our constituents in Silicon Valley have brought forward incredible advances, improving the lives of billions of people, but we believe that great missteps have been made," Eshoo said during a press call on Tuesday. Both lawmakers represent Silicon Valley.

"The American people have been left vulnerable — the private information we share online has been stolen, abused, used for profit, and it's been grossly mishandled," Eshoo added.

The introduction of Eshoo and Lofgren's Online Privacy Act raises the stakes for a separate House effort to work up a privacy bill. For months, top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been working to put together federal privacy legislation that could attract Republican co-sponsors, but they have not offered that bill publicly yet. 

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Lofgren during the press call referred to the bill as "the boldest digital privacy act that's being introduced."

"We hope that it will be a marker for those who are taking a look at how to protect privacy rights in this digital era," Lofgren said. 

The Online Privacy Act would create a federal agency to "enforce users’ privacy rights and ensure companies follow the law," according to a summary of the bill. The Digital Privacy Agency would be modeled after similar government bodies in Europe.

The lawmakers referred to the Federal Trade Commission, the consumer welfare agency currently tasked with overseeing privacy issues, as "toothless" and accused the agency of issuing "parking ticket" fines to companies when they took advantage of user data. Facebook recently settled with the FTC for a record-breaking $5 billion, a number that amounted to only a fraction of Facebook's enormous annual revenue.

Besides creating a new agency, the act would prevent companies from collecting data beyond what is necessary for their services to run, a clause that would significantly slim down the degree to which platforms like Facebook and Google could deliver ads targeted according to the personal information they collect about users. 

Lofgren said the companies would no longer be able to use the content of users' personal communications to deliver "micro-targeted" ads under the legislation. Serving targeted ads is a key source of revenue for all of the top social media platforms. The companies would still be able to target advertisements under Lofgren and Eshoo's bill as long as they obtain consent.

The bill would also require users to give consent every time their personal data is sold. 

Lofgren and Eshoo have been circulating a draft of the legislation for months. The bill would allow states to pass their own stringent privacy laws, the lawmakers told reporters on Tuesday, allowing California to move forward in its efforts to enforce its own incoming privacy legislation. 

Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have pushed hard to override any state measures on privacy, while Democrats have sought to punt on the issue. The issue of "preemption" has been a sticking point in the separate and ongoing bipartisan efforts to work up privacy legislation in the Senate. 

Lofgren told reporters that the lawmakers believe it would be "meaningful for the rest of Congress" if "the representatives from Silicon Valley took a strong stand for privacy rights."

"That's why this bill is as bold as it is," she said. 

Updated 4:56 P.M.