Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill

Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill
© Aaron Schwartz

A group of top Democratic senators from four key committees on Monday unveiled their priorities for the nation's first comprehensive privacy bill, reinvigorating a debate that had stalled for months on Capitol Hill. 

Legislation built on the Democrats' stated priorities would limit how much sensitive information tech companies are allowed to collect on their millions of U.S. users, require companies to audit whether their algorithms result in unintended discrimination against minorities and vulnerable populations, and allow users to sue companies that do not protect their privacy rights. 

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Some of the proposals set out by the Democrats could be non-starters for Republicans, including the clause that would allow users to sue companies over privacy violations and the fact that it does not override state privacy legislation. The Democratic proposal would allow states to enact their own tough privacy laws, which Republicans and the tech industry have largely opposed.

But the principles released Monday allow the Democrats to draw a line in the sand in negotiations around the market-shifting legislation.

The Democrats first came together to work up a privacy legislation framework at the request of Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech New poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Lawmakers push Trump to restore full funding for National Guards responding to pandemic MORE (D-N.Y.). The principles released Monday were signed by Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mike Roman says 3M on track to deliver 2 billion respirators globally and 1 billion in US by end of year; US, Pfizer agree to 100M doses of COVID-19 vaccine that will be free to Americans Overnight Energy: Supreme Court reinstates fast-track pipeline permit except for Keystone XL | Judge declines to reverse Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget MORE (D-Wash.), Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Banking Committee ranking member Sen.  Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownWhat Trump's orders will and won't do for payroll taxes, unemployment benefits Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (D-Ohio), and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayPelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive House approves two child care bills aimed at pandemic GOP, Democratic relief packages B apart on vaccine funding MORE (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.  

All of those committees have jurisdiction over the issue of online privacy. 

"I applaud my colleagues for their great work and am proud to support these strong principles,” Schumer said in a statement on Monday. 

The principles would beef up the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) ability to take on Big Tech by giving the agency more resources and the ability to create rules to modernize privacy laws as technology adapts. It would also allow the FTC to penalize companies the first time they violate user privacy. 

"In an ever-evolving information age, consumers deserve to have protections from websites and online services harvesting their personal data," Cantwell said in a statement. "They deserve to have privacy rights and have those rights protected." 

There are several overlapping efforts to write privacy legislation in the House and Senate, but the most important of those negotiations have been unfolding between the staffs of Cantwell and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump The Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers zero in on Twitter after massive hack | US, UK, Canada allege Russian hackers targeted COVID-19 vaccine researchers | Top EU court rules data transfer deal with the US is illegal MORE (R-Miss.). Wicker and Cantwell have been in bilateral talks since the summer.

Meanwhile, Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have hinted they could put out privacy legislation of their own. 

“I know from having fought for stronger privacy protection over decades, federal action is woefully overdue and urgently necessary now. I will continue to work for bipartisan federal action because Americans absolutely want stronger privacy protection,” Blumenthal, a tech critic who was consulted in the process of working up the Democrats' privacy framework, said in a statement. 

“They know from painful experience that the intimate details of our personal lives are used against us every day by unaccountable corporations and foreign actors, deeply endangering our safety and democracy," Blumenthal said. "Americans deserve and rightly expect stronger privacy safeguards, regardless of their politics or their personal circumstance. I look forward to collaborating with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass—as soon as possible—new privacy laws that are as strong and comprehensive as possible."