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 Cantwell (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.”

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.

“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 Wicker (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.

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 Schatz (D-Hawaii), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (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. 

Tags Amy Klobuchar Brian Schatz Ed Markey Facebook Google Maria Cantwell online privacy Roger Wicker Social media

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