Guest Editorials, Opinion

Congress must resist efforts to weaken data privacy legislation

Congress is on the verge of passing a major federal data privacy law that will finally put some guardrails on what information companies can gather from Americans and how they can use it. But the lucrative industry that has arisen around the monetization of such data has launched a lobbying blitz attempting to water down the legislation. They must not succeed.

Americans’ online footprints today contain a vast array of personal and financial information, much of which can be mined by internet service providers, credit-rating bureaus, third-party companies selling goods or services and others that operate mostly out of sight from the average internet user. The technology that makes both mass and personalized data collection possible has advanced far faster than regulatory standards, allowing both legitimate and shady entities to operate in a Wild West atmosphere. The implications for consumers range from the annoyance of targeted advertising to compromised financial data and even threats to personal safety (because of location apps).

The American Data Privacy and Protection Act would replace the patchwork of state data privacy laws with one national standard that would govern how companies can gather and use personal data, and what consumers can do to protect themselves. It’s the same concept in use in the European Union, and all indications suggest that it works.

The omnibus U.S. bill, which has bipartisan support, would allow consumers to sue companies that misuse or misrepresent their data. It would broaden the definition of sensitive data to include things like text messages, calendar information and any data regarding minors.

It would provide internet users with a clear way to opt out of targeted advertising and would entirely prohibit aiming such advertising at kids under 17. It would also ban companies from sharing or selling health data — a more crucial issue than ever since the Supreme Court this year eviscerated the constitutional right to privacy regarding abortion and, potentially, other medical issues.

Who could possibly oppose these reasonable reforms? The data brokers, of course. Politico reports that at least five prominent entities that deal largely in third-party data gathering have seen a major spike in their combined lobbying expenditures recently compared with the same period last year. Those entities, including the credit-reporting agency TransUnion, are trying to loosen the bill’s restrictions on data sharing and advertising — which, at its core, is the whole point of the legislation.

Carving out the loopholes these entities seek wouldn’t merely be as bad as the status quo, it would be worse because those companies would have specific permission in federal law to do some of the things they now get away with merely because the law is silent. That would be an ironic and dangerous outcome to an effort that began with the simple but crucial premise that Americans should have control over their own data.

This editorial first appeared in St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.