Key House committee offers online privacy bill draft

Key House committee offers online privacy bill draft
© Aaron Schwartz

A key House committee on Wednesday unveiled a first draft of a bipartisan federal privacy bill, bringing Congress one step closer to passing a law to rein in the tech industry's unregulated collection of personal information on its millions of U.S. users.

The draft from Republican and Democratic staffers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee comes as the Senate continues to wrestle with its own privacy negotiations, which recently broke down as top senators offered separate party-line bills.

The House bill offers new hope for industry watchers who have been rooting for Congress to work up the country's first comprehensive privacy bill, which will draw new safeguards around how companies are allowed to collect and use reams of data about the people who use their services.  

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Staffers on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Internet, sent the draft legislation to stakeholders on Wednesday. They're currently seeking comments from the many privacy groups, companies and trade groups that have been watching the bill negotiations closely for nearly a year. 

“Committee staff have circulated a bipartisan staff discussion draft of comprehensive federal privacy legislation," an Energy and Commerce spokesperson said. "This draft seeks to protect consumers while also giving data collectors clear rules of the road. It reflects many months of hard work and close collaboration between Democratic and Republican Committee staff."

"We welcome input from all interested stakeholders and look forward to working with them going forward," the spokesperson added.

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On many issues, the House's privacy bill discussion draft hews closely to the legislation recently offered by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. But the bill side-steps several of the most divisive issues on the table, including whether any federal law will override incoming state privacy laws and whether individuals should be empowered to sue companies over privacy violations. 

Those two divisive issues have led to months of stalled negotiations on the Senate Commerce Committee, where Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerBottom line GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (R-Miss.) and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate Dems introduce bill to keep pilots and bus and train operators safe Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight Trump nominee for Consumer Product Safety Commission involved in CDC guidance shelving: AP MORE (D-Wash.) have been held up for months as they try to break the impasse. The Democrats, led by Cantwell, have argued fervently in favor of allowing individuals to sue, while the Republicans have called it a "non-starter." Republicans in both chambers have also insisted that they will not support a privacy law unless it preempts state legislation, such as California's tough privacy law, which is set to go into effect in January.  

The top Republican who has been working on the bill, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.), in a statement emphasized that the draft is unfinished. She has been working alongside Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyHillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers Democrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations Hillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns MORE (D-Ill.), a key Democrat on the committee. 

"This staff draft is not a finished product but will serve as an important step in the process for us to solicit feedback and continue to negotiate a final bill," McMorris-Rodgers said. "I’m appreciative of the bipartisan staff work that has gone into this and am committed to continue working with Chair Schakowsky towards a bipartisan privacy bill." 

The House legislation, which is currently unnamed, allows online users to access, dispute and delete any personal information that companies have collected about them. And it would significantly beef up the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) ability to take on and oversee companies that have violated users' privacy. 

It would create an entirely new bureau dedicated to privacy within the FTC, a proposal also laid out in Cantwell's Democratic bill. 

The privacy bill would also bar companies from using data in ways that result in discrimination against minorities and other populations protected under decades-old civil rights laws, a provision that will likely end up in any final law. 

"We're trying to ... make it bipartisan and get Republicans," House Energy and Commerce Committe Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) told The Hill on Wednesday. "That's part of what we're working on." 

The Energy and Commerce Committee staff are asking for feedback by mid-January. 

Updated 5:45 P.M.