Tech executives say they want data privacy legislation without strongest regulations

Tech executives say they want data privacy legislation without strongest regulations
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers grilled executives from technology companies, who said Wednesday that they supported legislation for privacy regulation but often dodged backing specific policies. 

The Senate Commerce Committee hauled in representatives from Twitter, Amazon, Google, Apple, AT&T and Charter to question their privacy practices and what type of new consumer data regulations they're open to.

Executives from the companies were often quick to agree, or offer a “qualified yes” to broad commitments of support for new privacy legislation and increased government regulation regarding data privacy, but demurred when pressed for details on what they would support.

When representatives did specify, they said they want some of the strongest provisions, like a mandatory opt-out for data collection, to be excluded from the hypothetical legislation.

During Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report O'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race Senate Dems urge Trump to continue nuclear arms control negotiations after treaty suspension MORE’s (D-Minn.) line of questioning each internet company in attendance agreed that they supported data privacy legislation, but largely declined to agree to specific details she put forward.

When she asked if they would be interested in a 72-hour public notification requirement in the wake of cybersecurity breaches, each declined.

And Google and Twitter chose to tout the work they did to simply their user agreements when asked if they would support requirements for more basic language in user agreements

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzThe Year Ahead: Push for privacy bill gains new momentum Giuliani attack on Twitter prompts backlash Bipartisan lawmakers call for investigation into VA amid issues with GI Bill benefit payments MORE (D-Hawaii) argued specific updates were needed to give the Federal Trace Commission teeth to regulate the internet and telecommunications companies — a point executives said they would consider, but did not firmly agree to.

Schatz pointed out that currently, the FTC can only penalize companies after it establishes consent decrees with them, instead of immediately penalizing them for violating regulations.

“There is no economic consequence for violating existing rules or statutes on privacy,” he said, calling it “absurd”. “Only if you violate that consent decree is there the authority to fine.”

Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, declined to agree but said “we certainly would be interested in engaging in a conversation about what an extension of [the FTC’s] authority would look like and what the proper contours might be,” expressing a sentiment shared by the other executives testifying.

But each agreed that they would prefer national privacy legislation that would require federal law to preclude state law to avoid a “patchwork” of regulatory hurdles that vary from state to state.

They also said new regulations should avoid being as onerous as the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations imposed in Europe.

Len Cali, Senior Vice President Global Public Policy at AT&T, expressed concern that the new rules were “strengthening incumbent” internet players in Europe by boxing out smaller ones that could not afford to afford to comply with the new regulations.

And each executive, except Charter’s Rachel Welch, said that they did not want a default “opt-in” option for consumers to agree to have their data collected, out of concern that it would disrupt functions of their apps that automatically collect some users’ data.

California’s new privacy law was frequently referenced during the hearing, features a mandatory opt-out option that lets users decline share data with tech and telecom companies.

Though the executives tried to stick to their preplanned scripts, lawmakers were able to pull some new details from them.

Enright confirmed to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden team discussed 2020 run with O'Rourke as VP: report Pollster says likely Dem 2020 nominee has not emerged in national conversation yet O’Rourke links border wall with increase in migrant deaths MORE (R-Texas) that Google does indeed have a “Project Dragonfly” but did not confirm the details of what the project entails, despite Cruz’s probing.

“I am not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project," Enright said declining to link the project to reports that said Dragonfly is a code name for a search engine Google is developing to comply with Chinese privacy and censorship laws.

The product has earned Google intense scrutiny, both within its own ranks from frustrated employees and with lawmakers like Cruz, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioKevin McLaughlin tapped to serve as NRSC executive director for 2020 Senate votes to end US support for Saudi war, bucking Trump Senators offer measure naming Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi slaying MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill McConnell sets Monday test vote on criminal justice bill Trump attorney general pick a prolific donor to GOP candidates, groups: report MORE (R-Ark.).

The three have questioned why Google is reportedly working with China despite the company saying it would end its contract with the Pentagon.

The next step following the hearings is to draft and ultimately pass privacy legislation that both Republicans and Democrats are willing to agree on, though a specific timeline for this remains to be seen.

“The question is no longer whether we need a federal law to protect consumers’ privacy,” said Committee Chairman Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — New momentum for privacy legislation | YouTube purges spam videos | Apple plans B Austin campus | Iranian hackers targeted Treasury officials | FEC to let lawmakers use campaign funds for cyber The Year Ahead: Push for privacy bill gains new momentum On The Money: Trump, Dems battle over border wall before cameras | Clash ups odds of shutdown | Senators stunned by Trump's shutdown threat | Pelosi calls wall 'a manhood thing' for Trump MORE (R-S.D.) during the hearing. “The question is what shape that law should take.”