Senate Commerce Hearing On Privacy

Senate stakeholders appear no closer to resolving the two key impasses in privacy legislation: preemption and a private right of action.

A week after the introduction of the “Setting an American Framework to Ensure Data Access, Transparency, and Accountability (SAFE DATA) Act” (S.4626) was introduced, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing titled “Revisiting the Need for Federal Data Privacy Legislation with four former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioners and California’s Attorney General. Generally speaking, Members used the hearing to elicit testimony on the aspects of a privacy bill they would like to see with the chair and ranking member asking the witnesses about the need for preemption and the benefits of one national privacy standard and the need for people to be able to sue as a means of supplementing limited capacity of the FTC and state attorneys general to police violations of a new law respectively.

The SAFE DATA Act (see here for more analysis) was introduced last week by Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senate Majority Whip and  Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet Subcommittee Chair John Thune (R-SD), Transportation and Safety Subcommittee Chair Deb Fischer (R-NE), and Safety, and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Wicker had put out for comment a discussion draft, the “Consumer Data Privacy Act of 2019” (CDPA) (See here for analysis) in November 2019 shortly after the Ranking Member on the committee, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and other Democrats had introduced their privacy bill, the “Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act“ (COPRA) (S.2968) (See here for more analysis).

Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) stated “[d]uring this Congress, protecting consumer data privacy has been a primary focus of this Committee…[and] [w]e held one of the first hearings of my chairmanship to examine how Congress should address this issue.” He said “[a]t that time, we heard that individuals needed rigorous privacy protections to ensure that businesses do not misuse their data…[and] [w]e heard that individuals need to be able to access, control, and delete the data that companies have collected on them.” Wicker stated “[w]e heard that businesses need a consistent set of rules applied reasonably and fairly to allow for continued innovation and growth in the digital economy…[a]nd we heard that the FTC needs enhanced authority and resources in order to oversee and enforce privacy protections.”

Wicker stated “[i]n the nearly two years since, members of this Committee have done a great deal of work developing legislation to address data privacy.” He said “[w]hile we worked, the world of data privacy did not stand still…[and] [t]he state of California implemented its California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and began enforcement this past summer.” Wicker contended “[l]ong-held concerns remain that the CCPA is difficult to understand and comply with and could become worse if the law is further expanded and amended through an upcoming ballot measure this fall.” He claimed “[t]he European Union has continued to enforce the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)…[and] [t]he EU’s main focus appears to be going after the biggest American companies rather than providing clear guidance for all businesses with European citizens as customers.”

Wicker noted

The picture in Europe is even more complex following the recent court ruling invalidating the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework, which governed how U.S. companies treated the data of EU citizens. Though the issues in that case were more related to national security than consumer privacy, the result was yet more uncertainty about the future of trans-Atlantic data flows. I look forward to holding a hearing before the end of the year on the now-invalidated Privacy Shield.

Wicker asserted “[t]he biggest new development that has impacted data privacy – as it has impacted so many facets of our life – is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in millions of Americans working from home.” He said “[t]he increased use of video conferencing, food delivery apps, and other online services increases the potential for privacy violations…[and] [t]he need to collect a great deal of data for contact tracing and to track the spread of the disease likewise raises privacy concerns if done improperly.”

Wicker declared that “[f]or all of these reasons and more, the need for a uniform, national privacy law is greater than ever…[and] [l]ast week I introduced the SAFE DATA Act.” He argued

The SAFE DATA Act would provide Americans with more choice and control over their data. It would require businesses to be more transparent and hold them to account for their data practices. It would strengthen the FTC’s ability to be an effective enforcer of new data privacy rules. And it would establish a nationwide standard so that businesses know how to comply no matter where their customers live, and so that consumers know their data is safe wherever the company that holds their data is located.

Wicker stated that “[t]he SAFE DATA Act is the result of nearly two years of discussions with advocacy groups, state and local governments, nonprofits, academics, and businesses of every size and from every sector of the economy – my thanks to all of those.” He claimed “[t]he diversity of voices was essential in crafting a law that would work consistently and fairly for all Americans.” Wicker contended “we have a chance to pass a strong national privacy law that achieves the goals of privacy advocates with real consensus among members of both parties and a broad array of industry members.”

Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) stated “[p]rotecting Americans’ privacy rights is critical, and that has become even sharper in the focus of the COVID-19 crisis, where so much of our lives have moved online.” She noted “[t]he American people deserve strong privacy protections for their personal data, and Congress must work to act in establishing these protections.” Cantwell said “[l]ast year, along with Senators [Brian] Schatz (D-HI), [Amy] Klobuchar (D-MN), and [Ed] Markey (D-MA), I introduced the “Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act“ (COPRA) (S.2968).” She claimed “[t]he bill is pretty straightforward…[and] provides foundational privacy rights to consumers, creates rules to prevent abuse of consumer data, and holds companies accountable with real enforcement measures.” Cantwell said “[u]nfortunately, other legislation throughout the legislative process, I think has taken different approaches…[and] [t]hese bills allow companies to maintain the status quo, burying important disclosure information in long contracts, hiding where consumer data is sold, and changing the use of consumer data without their consent.” She conclude that “obviously, I believe these loopholes are unacceptable.”

Cantwell argued

Most strikingly, these bills would actually weaken consumer rights around the country by preempting stronger state laws. Attorney General Becerra is with us today and I appreciate him being able to join us, because this would have an impact on a broad preemption, I should say, would have an impact on 40 million Californians who are protected by your privacy law and the privacy protections in your state. So we need to resolve this issue. But we can’t do so at the expense of states who have already taken action to protect the privacy of their citizens.

Cantwell stated that “[f]inally, we also know that individuals must have the right to their day in court, when privacy is violated, even with the resources and expertise and enforcers like the FTC–many of you, I know, know these rules well, and Attorneys General–we will never be able to fully police the thousands and thousands of companies collecting consumer data if you are the only cop on the beat.” She said “I’d like to go further, but there are many issues that we’re going to address here. I want to say that the legislation also needs to cover the complex issues of, you know, health and safety standards and important issues.” Cantwell stated “[t]he Supreme Court discussion that we’re now having, I think will launch us into a very broad discussion of privacy rights and where they exist within the Constitution.” She explained “[j]ust this recent court ruling that put at risk the little known but vital important provision of the FTC Act 13b, which allows the FTC to go to court to obtain refunds and other redress for consumers–the 10 billion dollars for example in the Volkswagen case–without this provision, the core mission of the FTC would be crippled.”

Cantwell asserted “I think all of these issues, and the important issues of privacy rights, should and will have a fair discussion, if we can have time to discuss them in this process…[and] I believe the issue of how the government interferes in our own privacy rights, whether the government oversteps our privacy rights, is a major issue to be discussed by this body in the next month.” She added “I don’t believe in some of the tactics that government has used to basically invade the privacy rights of individuals.”

Cantwell stated that “next week the minority will be introducing a report that we’ve been working on about the value of local journalism…[and] I believe the famous economist who said that markets need perfect information.” She argued “[w]e’re talking about the fact that if markets are distorted by information, then that really cripples our economy…[and] I think local journalism in a COVID crisis is proving that it’s valued information with the correct information on our local communities, and I think that this is something we need to take into consideration as we consider privacy laws and we consider these issues moving forward.”

Former FTC Commissioner and Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, Chief Privacy Officer, and Deputy General Counsel for Global Privacy and Regulatory Affairs Julie Brill explained that “Microsoft believes that comprehensive federal privacy legislation should support four key principles: consumer empowerment, transparency, corporate responsibility, and strong enforcement:

  • Consumer Empowerment. Empower consumers with the tools they need to control their personal information, including the ability to make informed choices about the data they provide to companies, to understand what data companies know about them, to obtain a copy of their data, to make sure the data is accurate and up to date, and to delete their data. Americans care deeply about having meaningful control over their data. In just the past nine months, from January 1, 2020 to September 18, 2020, Microsoft received over 14 and a half million unique global visitors to its privacy dashboard, where they were able to exercise their ability to control their data. This continued engagement with the control tools we provide included over 4 and a half million visitors from the United States, representing the greatest level engagement from any single country.
  • Transparency. Require companies to be transparent about their data collection and use practices, by providing people with concise and understandable information about what personal information is collected from them, and how that information is used and shared.
  • Corporate Responsibility. Place direct requirements on companies to ensure that they collect and use consumers’ data in ways that are responsible, and demonstrate that they are worthy stewards of that data.
  • Strong Enforcement. Provide for strong enforcement through regulators, and ensure they have sufficient resources to enforce the legal requirements that organizations must uphold, but also to be well-grounded in the data collection and analysis technologies that are used in the modern digital economy. These are the key elements that are required to build a robust and lasting U.S. privacy law.

George Washington University Law School Professor, King’s College Visiting Professor, and United Kingdom Competition and Markets Authority Non-Executive Director and former FTC Chair William E. Kovacic said:

As Congress defines the substantive commands of a new omnibus law, I suggest a close review of the FTC’s experience in implementing the Telemarketing Sales Rule. To my mind, this experience offers several insights into the design of privacy protections:

  • In addition to unfair or deceptive acts and practices, the definition of forbidden behavior should encompass abusive conduct, as the FTC has developed that concept in the elaboration of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). I single out 2003 TSR amendments, which established the National Do Not Call Registry, popularly known as the Do Not Call Rule (DNC Rule). In applying the concept of abusive conduct, the DNC Rule used a definition of harm that reached beyond quantifiable economic costs of the challenged practice (i.e., the time lost and inconvenience associated with responding to unwanted telephone calls to the home). The DNC Rule’s theory of harm focused on the fact that, to many citizens, telemarketing calls were annoying, irritating intrusions into the privacy of the home. A new privacy regime could build on this experience and allow privacy regulators, by rulemaking and by law enforcement, to address comparable harms and to create standards that map onto common expectations for data protection and security.
  • The coverage of the omnibus statute should be comprehensive. Privacy authorities should have power to apply the law to all commercial actors (i.e., with no exclusions for specific economic sectors)and to not-for-profit institutions such as charitable bodies and universities.
  • The omnibus law should clarify that its restrictions on the accumulation and use of date about individuals apply to their status as consumers and employees. Since the late 1990s, the FTC at times has engaged in debatable interpretations of its authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act to assure foreign jurisdictions that it has authority to enforce promises regarding the collection and transfer by firms of information about their employees.

Kovacic stated “[w]ith this general framework in mind, my testimony proposes that an omnibus privacy law should enhance the institutional arrangements for administering anew substantive privacy framework. This statement

  • Sets out criteria to assess the performance of the entities implementing U.S. privacy policy, and to determine how to allocate tasks to institutions responsible for policy development and law enforcement.
  • Suggests approaches to increase the coherence and effectiveness of the US privacy system and to make the United States a more effective participant in the development of international privacy policy.
  • Considers whether the FTC, with an enhanced mandate, should serve as the national privacy regulator, or whether the FTC’s privacy operations should be spun off to provide the core of a new privacy institution.

Kovacic explained

This statement concludes that the best solution is to take steps that would enhance the FTC’s role by (a) eliminating gaps in its jurisdiction, (b) expanding its capacity to promote cooperation among agencies with privacy portfolios and to encourage convergence upon superior policy norms, and (c) providing resources necessary to fulfill these duties. The proposal for an enlarged FTC role considers two dimensions of privacy regulation. The first is what might be called the “consumer-facing” elements of a privacy. My testimony deals mainly with the relationship between consumers and enterprises (for-profit firms and not-for-profit institutions, such as universities) that provide them with goods and services. My testimony does not address the legal mechanisms that protect privacy where the actors are government institutions. Thus, I do not examine the appropriate framework for devising and implementing policies that govern data collection and record-keeping responsibilities of federal agencies, such as bodies that conduct surveillance for national security purposes.

21st Century Privacy Coalition Co-Chair and Former FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz asserted:

  • Congress does not need to reinvent the wheel. Many of the elements I would propose are consistent with recommendations made by my former agency in its 2012 Privacy Report, drafted after years of work and engagement with stakeholders of all kinds. Technology will continue to change, but the basic principles enshrined in the Report remain the most effective way to give consumers the protections they deserve.
  • My view, and that of the Report, is that national privacy legislation must give consumers statutory rights to control how their personal information is used and shared, and provide increased visibility into companies’ practices when it comes to managing consumer data. Such an approach should provide consumers with easy-to-understand privacy choices based upon the nature of the information itself—its sensitivity, the risk of consumer harm if such information is the subject of an unauthorized disclosure—and the context in which it is collected. For example, consumers expect sensitive information—including health and financial data, precise geolocation, Social Security numbers, and children’s information—to receive heightened protection to ensure confidentiality.
  • Therefore, a muscular privacy law should require affirmative express consent for the use and sharing of consumers’ sensitive personally identifiable information, and opt-out rights for non-sensitive information. But consumers do not expect to consistently provide affirmative consent to ensure that companies fulfill their online orders or protect them from fraud; thus, inferred consent for certain types of operational uses of information by companies makes sense. Consumers should also have rights of access and deletion where appropriate, and deserve civil rights protections thoughtfully built for the Internet age.
  • Another key tenet of the FTC Report is that privacy should not be about who collects an individual’s personal information, but rather should be about what information is collected and how it is protected and used. That is why federal privacy legislation should be technology- and industry-neutral. Companies that collect, use, or share the same type of covered personal information should not be subject to different privacy requirements based on how they classify themselves in the marketplace.
  • Rigorous standards should be backed up with tough enforcement. To that end, Congress should provide the FTC with the ability to impose civil penalties on violators for first-time offenses, something all of the current Commissioners—and I believe all the former Commissioners testifying here today—support. Otherwise, malefactors will continue to get two bites at the apple of the unsuspecting consumer. And there is no question in my mind that the FTC should have the primary authority to administer the national privacy law. The FTC has the unparalleled institutional knowledge and experience gained from bringing more than 500 cases to protect the privacy and security of consumer information, including those against large companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Uber, Dish Network, and others. Congress should not stop there.
  • The way to achieve enhanced enforcement is by giving the FTC, an agency that already punches above its weight, the resources and authority to carry out its mandate effectively. As of 2019, there were fewer employees (“FTEs”) at the agency now than there were in 1980, and the American population has grown by more than 100 million people since then. The number of FTEs has actually decreased since I left the agency in 2013 until this year.
  • Moreover, the FTC clearly has a role to play in developing rules to address details that Congress may not want to tackle in the legislation itself as well as new developments in technology that could overwhelm (or circumvent) enforcement. For that reason, you should give the agency some APA rulemaking authority to effectively implement your law. Having said that, Congress should not overwhelm the FTC with mandated rulemaking after rulemaking, which would only bog the agency down instead of permitting it to focus on enforcing the new law.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued:

  • In the data privacy space, the optimal federal legal framework recognizes that privacy protections must keep pace with innovation, the hallmark of our data-driven economy. State law is the backbone of consumer privacy in the United States. Federal law serves as the glue that ties our communities together. To keep pace, we must all work from the same baseline playbook, but be nimble enough to adapt to real-world circumstances on the field where we meet them. I urge this committee to proceed in your work in a manner that respects—and does not preempt—more rigorous state laws, including those we have in California.
  • Like any law, the CCPA is not perfect, but it is an excellent first step. Consumers deserve more privacy and easier tools. For example, in the regulations implementing the CCPA, the California Department of Justice tried to address the frustration of consumers who must proceed website-by-website, browser-by-browser in order to opt out of the sale of their personal information. One provision of our regulations intended to facilitate the submission of a request to opt-out of sale by requiring businesses to comply when a consumer has enabled a global privacy control at the device or browser level, which should be less time-consuming and burdensome. I urge the technology community to develop consumer-friendly controls to make exercise of the right to opt out of the sale of information meaningful and frictionless. Making technology work for consumers is just as important as the benefits businesses receive in innovating.
  • There are also ways in which CCPA could go further and require refinement of its compliance measures. For example, the CCPA currently only requires disclosure of “categories of sources” from which personal information is collected and “categories of third parties” to whom personal information is sold. More specific disclosures, including the names of businesses that were the source or recipient of the information, should be required so that consumers can know the extent to which their information has been shared, bartered, and sold. If I receive junk mail from a company, I should be able to find out how it got my address and to whom it shared the information so I can stop the downstream purchase of my personal data. For now, businesses are not legally required to share that granularity of information. Consumers should also have the ability to correct the personal information collected about them, so as to prevent the spreading of misinformation.
  • On a broader level, if businesses want to use consumers’ data, they should have a duty to protect and secure it, and wherever feasible, minimize data collection. Businesses should no longer approach consumer data with the mindset, “collect now, monetize later.” There should be a duty imposed to use a consumer’s personal information in accordance with the purposes for which the consumer allowed its collection, and in the consumer’s interest, especially with the collection and storage of sensitive information, like precise geolocation. Although CCPA requires transparent notice at collection, moving beyond a notice-and-consent framework to contemplate use limitations would make our privacy rights more robust and balanced.
  • We need clear lines on what is illegal data use from the context of civil rights protections. Indirect inferences based on personal information should not be used against us in healthcare decisions, insurance coverage or employment determinations. We need greater transparency on how algorithms impact people’s fundamental rights of healthcare, housing and employment, and how they may be perpetuating systemic racism and bias. Predatory online practices, such as increased cross-site tracking after a user browses healthcare websites, must be addressed.
  • Finally, new laws should include a private right of action to complement and fortify the work of state enforcers. While my office is working hard to protect consumer privacy rights in California, and our sister states do the same in their jurisdictions, we cannot do this work alone. While we endeavor to hold companies accountable for violations of privacy laws, trying to defend the privacy rights of 40 million people in California alone is a massive undertaking. Violators know this. They know our scope and reach are limited to remedying larger and more consequential breaches of privacy. Consumers need the authority to pursue remedies themselves for violations of their rights. Private rights of action provide a critical adjunct to government enforcement, and enable consumers to assert their rights and seek appropriate remedies. Consumer privacy must be real, it deserves its day in court.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by KaraSuva from Pixabay

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