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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerVeronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats turn to obstruction charge Liberal super PAC to run digital ads slamming Trump over Medicare comments MORE (D-N.Y.). The principles released Monday were signed by Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenators fret over lack of manpower to build 5G Five tech stories to watch in 2020 Hillicon Valley: House panel unveils draft of privacy bill | Senate committee approves bill to sanction Russia | Dems ask HUD to review use of facial recognition | Uber settles sexual harassment charges for .4M MORE (D-Wash.), Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Banking Committee ranking member Sen.  Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Senate Democrat: 'Fine' to hear from Hunter Biden MORE (D-Ohio), and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Trump becomes first sitting president to attend March for Life | Officials confirm second US case of coronavirus | Trump officials threaten California funding over abortion law Top health officials brief senators on coronavirus as infections spread Administration to give Senate briefing on coronavirus 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 WickerHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — UN calls for probe into alleged Saudi hack of Bezos | Experts see effort to 'silence' Washington Post | Bezos tweets tribute to Khashoggi Senators fret over lack of manpower to build 5G Lawmakers introduce bill to bolster artificial intelligence, quantum computing 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."