‘Change in Attitude’ Creates Opening for Federal Privacy Deal

  • Staffers say agreement is near on privacy stumbling blocks
  • House hearing, Senate floor vote expected once deal reached

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Federal privacy legislation is moving ahead as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle make significant progress on the main points of contention, congressional staffers said Tuesday.

Two issues have stood in the way of an agreement: whether to override state-level privacy laws, and whether individuals should be able to sue companies for violations, known as a private right of action. Democrats, in contrast to Republicans, say a federal privacy law should preempt state law, unless the state law is stronger, and it should allow for private rights of action.

For at least two years, lawmakers took hard lines on those issues and “there wasn’t a lot of hope for progress,” said John Beezer, senior adviser for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation panel’s Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security Subcommittee. After a hearing last fall with Frances Haugen, a whistleblower and former employee of Meta Platforms Inc.‘s Facebook, people’s interest peaked and “there was a real noticeable change in attitude,” Beezer said during an International Association of Privacy Professionals conference.

Haugen leaked internal documents showing Facebook was aware of how social media can harm children, highlighting the need for stronger laws.

Big Tech to Congress: Forget About Antitrust, Pass a Privacy Law

Photo: Drew Angerer/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) questions former Facebook employee Frances Haugen during a hearing entitled ‘Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower’ on Oct. 5, 2021.

Preemption and private right of action aren’t resolved “but they are substantially less of an obstacle than they used to be,” he added.

Syd Terry, chief of staff for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), agreed, adding there’s a fair amount of alignment on the broader issues, such as establishing a Federal Trade Commission bureau to deal with privacy issues.

Although a deal may be near, the window for advancing it is narrowing as lawmakers aim to advance a range of priorities in the remaining eight months of the congressional session.

FTC Chair Lina Khan called for replacing the “overwhelming” privacy policies governing companies’ collection and use of consumer data during the conference Monday.

Schakowsky, who serves as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, would say legislation will get done this year, Terry said. “What I’m seeing right now from everyone is a real indication that an agreement could be had,” he said.

The panel will likely hold a hearing after there’s an agreement, Terry and Timothy Kurth, subcommittee chief counsel for Republicans, both said. “We have a bigger chamber, there are a lot of people to educate,” Kurth said.

On the Senate side, Beezer said he believed the legislation would go straight to the floor if a deal were reached.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi at mcuri@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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