Opinion: A call for national privacy legislation
Change is in the air in Washington, especially when it comes to protecting consumer online data and information. If you watch the news, it appears the only bipartisan priority is that technology needs to be regulated, and fast.
Consumers have become more concerned about how online data is used and protected. Americans on all sides of the ideological spectrum, furious about social media manipulation and disinformation, are voicing antitrust concerns. Republicans are up in arms over censorship and Democrats see online platforms as having moved too slowly to halt racist and violence-inducing hate speech.
All of these views are valid, but a rush to partisan, ineffective regulation would be a profound missed opportunity. Privacy and data regulation is necessary, but it needs to simplify and improve consumer privacy, without inadvertently making it worse by moving too fast.
It’s important to get this right, for everyone’s sake. A federal law that places consumers at the center is the answer.
As the 117th Congress begins and a new presidential administration takes over, Washington is a land of new opportunity—although one that will require compromise. With Democrats controlling the Senate, House of Representatives and White House, they can launch the kind of legislative campaigns they once used to enact sweeping climate change, healthcare and financial reforms. Privacy reform must be one of those priorities, and it cannot be done without cooperation across the aisle.
Bills introduced over the past two years would have increased consumer transparency and choice and put more accountability on entities that collect and process data online. But they lacked momentum to attract much attention in a crowded legislative schedule. As a result, state privacy bills continue to be introduced and could be fast-tracked through their respective statehouses, potentially creating a Frankenstein monster of conflicting privacy laws that alter consumers’ online rights as they travel from state to state.
A patchwork of state laws, with different compliance obligations for companies of all sizes, will wreak havoc on innovation, the monetization of content and the ability of new brands to grow into household names. That hits directly at the user experiences that American consumers expect and the websites and services they depend on.
Will an individual’s privacy settings be consistent from city to city? Will consumers need to re-enter their favorite sports teams to get scores or their ZIP code to find out what the weather is back home? Multi-state privacy regulation is a looming mess. The need for a uniform federal law is overdue, and the roadblocks to achieving one are minimal.
President Biden’s nominees and staff include some of the sharpest minds on technology and economic growth, and they need to lean into privacy reform. A priority is a nationwide privacy law that enhances consumer privacy and allows creators and businesses of all sizes to use online data responsibly and transparently. It is time to use the bully pulpit of the White House to call upon Congress to pass legislation that keeps personal information protected and allows companies to use it responsibly—with strong enforcement and penalties if they fail to do so.
Federal consumer-centric legislation should:
Allow websites and apps to use secure, anonymized data to identify Americans and improve their online experiences.
Abandon the broken “notice and choice” regimes to protect personal data. Instead, the legislation should define and prohibit practices that put personal data at risk or undermine accountability.
Fix what’s broken without damaging what works. As America recovers from the pandemic, legislation should aim to preserve the benefits to consumers and the overall national economy that result from the responsible use of data.
Americans have been waiting for sensible new rules of the road for years. Washington is full of bipartisan agreement on that need.
It is time to clear a path and get it done.