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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 SchumerHeatwaves don't lie: Telling the truth about climate change Schumer backing plan to add dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (D-N.Y.). The principles released Monday were signed by Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate Democrats threaten to block 2026 World Cup funds unless women's soccer team get equal pay Senate confirms Biden's top scientist Senate chaos: Johnson delays exit as votes pushed to Friday MORE (D-Wash.), Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive groups ramp up pressure on Feinstein Youth climate activists march outside California homes of Pelosi and Feinstein Cosmetic chemicals need a makeover MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Banking Committee ranking member Sen.  Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownCutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal MORE (D-Ohio), and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayPublic option fades with little outcry from progressives Senate GOP blocks bill to combat gender pay gap OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump |  Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps 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 WickerSen. Manchin paves way for a telehealth revolution Senate confirms Radhika Fox to lead EPA's water office Overnight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US 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."