Tech

Senate Democrats reveal new digital privacy bill that would strengthen the FTC's enforcement powers over tech companies

Key Points
  • Democratic senators revealed a new online privacy bill Tuesday that could mark a milestone in the lengthy push for a federal privacy law.
  • The top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee is leading the charge for the new legislation along with three other Democratic senators.
  • The bill would provide protections for digital consumers and establish a new bureau within the Federal Trade Commission to enforce digital privacy rights.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington and ranking member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, makes an opening statement during a hearing in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Top Democratic senators revealed a new online privacy bill Tuesday that could mark a milestone in the lengthy push for a federal privacy law and would strengthen the Federal Trade Commission's ability to enforce digital privacy protections.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, is leading the charge for the new bill as Congress has struggled to come to a consensus on what to include in federal privacy legislation.

Cantwell in a press release likened the bill's protections to "Miranda rights" for digital consumers. The bill would grant citizens the right to request their information from companies and ask for data to be deleted or corrected. It would also make companies responsible for getting permission to collect and share sensitive data, which includes biometric information and precise locations. Companies must not collect more information than they reasonably need to function under the bill's proposals.

Cantwell's legislation addresses two sticking points in privacy discussions that may stir up pushback from Republicans and tech companies. The proposal would allow for states to continue to issue their own privacy laws and give citizens a private right of action to bring their own lawsuits. The Commerce Committee is set to discuss privacy legislation proposals at a December hearing.

"The legislation released today reflects where the Democrats want to go," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the chairman of the Commerce Committee, in a statement. "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. I expect that we will have a bill to discuss at next week's hearing."

Cantwell's bill, which is also sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is not the first privacy bill to be floated in Congress. In the House, for example, two Silicon Valley congresswomen recently introduced a bill that goes beyond some of the measures in California's new privacy legislation. California's privacy law goes into effect in January and may serve as a testing ground for privacy ideas on the federal level.

The new Senate bill, dubbed the "Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act" or "COPRA" is significant because of Cantwell's standing on the Commerce Committee, which is heavily involved in tech issues. The committee has held hearings on automated vehicles, cybersecurity and social media in the wake of Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal. It also has oversight of the Federal Communications Commission.

The proposal would also further strengthen the Federal Trade Commission, which has been ridiculed by Democrats over its privacy settlements with Facebook and Google's YouTube this year, which some claimed were too weak to prevent further wrongdoing. Rather than create a new federal agency, as the Democratic House bill proposes, Cantwell's legislation would create a new bureau within the FTC to handle digital privacy enforcement. The bill mandates that bureau be fully staffed and operational within two years of its enactment.

State attorneys general could also enforce the federal law, as well as their state laws. Relief under the federal legislation would funnel into a consumer relief fund, according to the proposal.

The bill also places greater responsibility on company executives to ensure their adherence to digital privacy protections. Beginning one year after the law's enactment, CEOs of companies that hold large amounts of data would have to certify to the FTC on a yearly basis that they have "adequate internal controls" and reporting structures to comply with the law.

For tech companies, federal privacy legislation has been a top priority as Congress' stalemate has motivated states to take the matter into their own hands. Tech leaders have warned of the potential for fragmented platforms if states continue to impose varied standards, which would likely be more costly and less efficient for companies to comply with. Cantwell's proposal would not necessarily provide the relief tech companies have been looking for, as it would still allow states to enact and enforce their own privacy laws.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been among the tech leaders urging congressional leaders to move forward on federal regulation. Zuckerberg met with several representatives in September to discuss "future internet regulation" in closed-door meetings, a Facebook spokesperson said at the time.

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