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Key Senate Democrats unveil sweeping online privacy bill

Key Senate Democrats unveil sweeping online privacy bill
© Stefani Reynolds

A group of key Senate Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a sweeping online privacy bill, injecting new life into the stalled bipartisan efforts to draw up the country's first comprehensive privacy bill on Capitol Hill. 

The bill introduced by 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 (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, publicizes the Democrats' wish list for any federal privacy bill. The long-awaited Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA) would enshrine online users' right to privacy and bar companies from obfuscating what they are doing with users' personal information. 

"In the growing online world, consumers deserve two things: privacy rights and a strong law to enforce them,” Cantwell said in a statement. “They should be like your Miranda rights—clear as a bell as to what they are and what constitutes a violation.”

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Under the law, users would have the right to see and delete any personal information that companies have amassed about them. And tech firms — including Google and Facebook — would have to explain in clear terms what they are doing with users' data. If they fail to adhere to the law, they could face costly fines and lawsuits. 

Cantwell's legislation would give users more control over their data, allowing them to prevent their information from being accessed by third-party companies without their permission. It would also beef up the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) ability to go after tech companies over privacy violations.

The legislation would require the FTC to draw up new rules and regulations around how companies should ask for permission to use data and how they treat biometric data, including fingerprints and facial scans. 

And it would build in new civil rights protections, ensuring that companies are not using sensitive data about race, sexual orientation, ethnicity or other protected identifiers to advertise products that touch on employment, housing or credit in an effort to bring decades-old civil rights laws into the digital age. 

“In today’s online economy, we have seen how the misuse of personal data can exacerbate discrimination in housing, employment, credit, and education," the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in a statement.

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"The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act prioritizes civil rights by ensuring that individuals’ personal data cannot be used for discriminatory purposes and that big data algorithms are assessed for bias.”

The legislation emerges several years into a larger global awakening around the potential dangers of allowing tech companies to gather limitless reams of data about their billions of users.

In the U.S., lawmakers began seriously looking at privacy legislation after Facebook's highly publicized Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw a right-leaning political consulting firm obtain the information of millions of Facebook users without their consent. 

For months, a group of lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee have worked to put together a bipartisan federal privacy bill. Over the summer, 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.) stepped aside to engage in bilateral negotiations, but those talks have yet to bare any significant drafts of potential legislation.   

The lawmakers have blown past several self-imposed deadlines to put out a bill, but the Democrats on Tuesday sought to strengthen their hand in the negotiations by putting out their ideal privacy legislation.

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Meanwhile, Republicans — most prominently Wicker — have made it clear that several provisions in Cantwell's legislation, including allowing individuals to sue tech companies over privacy violations, are non-starters. Cantwell's bill would also allow states to write their own privacy laws, an issue that Republicans and the tech industry have largely opposed, warning that a "patchwork" of state laws would be difficult to navigate.

Sources watching the legislation have said that it's unlikely any bipartisan legislation will be introduced ahead of 2020, when the presidential elections ramp up. However, Cantwell's legislation highlights that the efforts to put together the bill have not stalled entirely.

Senate Commerce Committee Democrats including Sens. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzTech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Bitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Senate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination MORE (D-Hawaii), Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (D-Minn.) are all co-sponsors of COPRA so far.

“Companies continue to profit off of the personal data they collect from Americans, but they leave consumers completely in the dark about how their personal information is being used," Klobuchar, who's running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement.

“Our legislation establishes digital rules of the road for companies, ensures that consumers have the right to access and control how their personal data is being used," she continued. "It’s time for Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation.”

Wicker, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a statement emphasized that the Democrats' bill does not have bipartisan support.

“The legislation released today reflects where the Democrats want to go," Wicker said. "But any privacy bill will need bipartisan support to become law."

"I am committed to continuing to work with the ranking member and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get a bill that can get across the finish line," he said. 

The Senate Commerce Committee is set to hold a data privacy hearing next week, during which lawmakers will discuss their own proposals.

"I expect that we will have a bill to discuss at next week’s hearing," Wicker said.