Congress must move beyond partisanship and protect the privacy of American consumers online.
Many Americans were shocked recently when Google announced it would stop scanning its users’ email to target advertisements. Did many even know it was happening?
Online privacy is an issue that continues to rightfully concern Americans. According to research by IBM, over ninety percent of the world’s data has been generated in the last two years alone. The explosion of smartphones and internet-connected devices has Americans utilizing online services to do everything from grocery shopping to tracking their health. However, increased reliance on online services has made Americans more conscious about how they share sensitive personal information, which is why I introduced the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly (BROWSER) Act last month.
Instead of subjecting the consumers to different rules from multiple regulators, the BROWSER Act establishes one privacy regulator with one set of rules for the entire internet eco-system. Internet service providers (those which provide access to the internet such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast) and “edge” providers (those which provide content and/or services for the internet, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon) would equally be required to obtain consumers’ consent to use their sensitive information. This “opt-in” consent would apply to things such as social security numbers, financial information, health information, web browsing history, precise geo-location data and other user information deemed sensitive.
The Federal Trade Commission has been our nation’s sole online privacy regulator for years and, under BROWSER, would be tasked with enforcement. In the age of “Big Data,” the BROWSER Act’s opt-in framework and regulatory fairness will empower Americans with more control over their online presence, or what I call the “Virtual You.” In addition, my legislation contains a preemption clause to provide the industry with regulatory certainty it will not be confronted with a patchwork of inconsistent state privacy laws.
Online privacy is not a new issue. Congress has been working on it for years and it’s time we give Americans the tools they need to have greater control over their “Virtual You.” During the 113th Congress, I co-chaired the bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Working Group. Republicans and Democrats worked intensely, side-by-side, holding roundtable discussions with industry leaders to identify best practices for protecting consumers’ privacy. This had been a bipartisan issue.
Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission created a last minute, one-sided set of privacy rules for internet service providers late last year. The rules, which never went into effect, would have established two online privacy regulators and required ISPs to comply with much stricter regulations than edge providers, which arguably collect more data. The unbalanced rules concerned senior Republicans and Democrats alike, who warned in a May 2016 letter to FCC Chairman Wheeler that the rulemaking would “ill-serve consumers who seek and expect consistency in how their personal data is protected.” Congress used the Congressional Review Act to nullify the rules this past Spring.
In today’s hyper-partisan landscape, however, bipartisanship has taken a backseat. Democrats have chided the repeal of the FCC’s privacy rulemaking and displayed a remarkable stubbornness to engage on this issue. They now argue that nothing can undo the immediate harm caused by repealing rules that had not even gone into effect. They further assert that Republicans did so with limited debate – seeming to ignore the fact that the one-sided FCC rules were written behind closed doors by an unelected bureaucrat who actually stole jurisdiction from another federal agency. Hardly regular order.
Whatever the reasons for resisting, Democrats’ refusal to engage is perplexing at best, or a pretext for something else at worst.
The online privacy debate belongs in the halls of Congress, with Republicans and Democrats forging a consensus on how best to protect and empower consumers. I know members on both sides genuinely share concerns about protecting Americans’ privacy. The BROWSER Act’s opt-in regime will give consumers greater control over how their sensitive personal information is shared and establish regulatory consistency by treating ISPs and “edge” providers the same. Having two cops on the beat enforcing different sets of rules isn’t fair to anybody and will lead to less certainty when it comes to protecting the privacy of Americans.