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Privacy Preview: A Look Ahead to the Senate Hearing and the Prospects for Legislation

After nearly a year of being in draft form, Federal privacy legislation was introduced last week by a quartet of Republican senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. This week, on Wednesday, that same committee, chaired by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., will hold a hearing titled “Revisiting the Need for Federal Data Privacy Legislation.”

MeriTalk caught up with the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Director of the Data and Privacy Project Michelle Richardson, a witness for the committee back in April, to get her take on the hearing, what has changed recently in the privacy world, and the prospects for a Federal privacy standard.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

MeriTalk: What do you anticipate during Wednesday’s hearing?

Richardson: The hearing is supposed to cover all the developments that have happened since their last hearing. It’s been a big year. Everything from COVID-19, the way we’re using health data; to implementation of the California law, and the rising ballot initiative out there in California, Proposition 24; European interpretations of GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation]. We had states earlier in the year during their own legislative sessions trying to pass bills. The hearing will be a good chance to catch up on where everyone else is going with privacy law and policy.

I suspect part of the goal is to show the need for Federal legislation, sooner rather than later, to keep up with these trends and set a Federal standard.

MeriTalk: Could you also discuss the bill that Senator Wicker and others introduced?

Richardson: He added co-sponsors [Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.]. That’s always a sign that they are starting to amass a consensus position about what should go in a bill. Even after you get the bills introduced, and start doing markups, it’s still a very long process. There’s only going to be so much they could do this Fall, and so, we’re going to have to continue into next year.

MeriTalk: What do you want Americans to know more about these issues?

Richardson: One of the most exciting things in the last couple of years is watching people start to understand what’s at stake here. There’s a huge information gap, but it is closing rapidly.

Part of it is because there’s been such good media coverage that has been able to independently track down how some of these technologies work and explain them to people in ways that they understand and care about. A great example would be the story about location data The New York Times had. They had the reporter agree to share the location information on the phone.

You could see the map of what the phone and all the apps that track her see. It’s pretty clear where she wakes up in the morning, where she lives, where her kid is dropped off at school, the doctor she goes to. I feel like people are learning quickly the type of damage and how [the data] can be used.

What I would want people to know is that it may take a little more direct contact with their members of Congress to let them know that this is important and you want better privacy laws.

MeriTalk: How has the privacy issue changed in the last six months?

Richardson: COVID has brought attention back to those fundamental conflicts between using data in service of people and making sure though that there are clear rules, so it’s not abused. There were proposals for mini-privacy bills, just on COVID, in the House and the Senate. It was a good demonstration of just how entrenched some of the players are on these issues. It seemed like no one was willing to find some middle ground on things like preemption or private right of action. So it didn’t move at the end of the day.

The other thing we have is California. Folks out in California put another ballot initiative [Proposition 24] out for this election in November. This is more expansive and gives people additional rights and requires companies to do more for their users.

MeriTalk: What do you see as the prospects for Federal privacy legislation going forward?

Richardson: It’s hard to crystal ball that. It’s definitely going to be in the next Congress at this rate. I would say we are starting to zero-in on agreement about certain things like opt-in for the use of sensitive data. All the bills have that now [referring to Sen. Wicker’s bill and the bill introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member].

It’s not clear who’s going to have the base text [of a Federal law], but you’re going to probably have 75 percent of the things in all the bills anyways.

The hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is scheduled for Wednesday, September 23 at 10 a.m.

Dwight Weingarten
About Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is MeriTalk SLG's Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.