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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 SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.). The principles released Monday were signed by Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing MORE (D-Wash.), Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Banking Committee ranking member Sen.  Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (D-Ohio), and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition DOJ investigation into Epstein deal ends without recommended action The Hill's 12:30 Report: What to know about the Pfizer vaccine announcement 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 WickerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Republicans start turning the page on Trump era The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states 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."