Senate Privacy Group Talks Data Security, Adding to FTC Role

  • Senate Judiciary panel task force meets with tech companies
  • Group separate from existing Commerce Committee privacy effort

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s first privacy working group met with large tech companies to discuss data security and increasing the Federal Trade Commission’s authority as lawmakers work to develop federal privacy legislation before the end of the year.

The tech task force led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) heard from tech companies Snap Inc., Mozilla, Salesforce and Match Group Inc. on Thursday.

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lawmakers want to look at data security issues, competition and how to define harm in the context of consumer’s privacy being violated by internet companies, Blackburn told reporters after the meeting.

Blackburn and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a ranking member on the committee’s intellectual property subcommittee, said the group also discussed how to increase the FTC’s enforcement authority to ensure actions are taken against companies that violate consumers’ privacy. The FTC is in the process of fining Facebook Inc. $5 billion for such violations, according to reports.

There may be a need to give the FTC limited rulemaking authority, Blackburn said.

The companies shared their thoughts on how Europe’s privacy regulations and the California Consumer Privacy Act create a framework for U.S. companies, Coons told reporters.

“How can we be globally competitive, how can we have a predictable framework and how can we both be competitive and innovative and yet protect the data of our constituents,” he said.

State Laws Forcing Federal Action

The group will work toward passing a federal privacy law to override various state efforts across the country. Lawmakers are facing a ticking clock to set one national standard by the end of the year, as California’s broad law goes into effect in January 2020. Taking California’s lead, Nevada, Maine and others states have worked to pass their own privacy laws.

Snap, Match and Salesforce each target specific age groups, but aren’t bound by a single unifying nationwide privacy standard, Blackburn said on Wednesday. Mozilla faces the same problem as a tool that can access numerous websites with few privacy provisions, she said.

Blackburn has introduced the BROWSER Act (S. 1116), which would require communications and technology companies to give users the options to opt in to the collection of sensitive information and opt out of the collection of non-sensitive information.

The next working group meeting will address data security issues, Coons said. The group is expected to meet every two weeks when the Senate is in session. He plans to discuss data breach notification, if a consumer’s data provided by a company is breached, and how to determine when a company has to notify and remedy the situation.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the tech task force co-chair and joined Thursday’s meeting, as did Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Commerce Panel Effort Slows

Blackburn’s group isn’t the only Senate panel working on legislation. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s bipartisan privacy working group has also discussed the issue. But Blackburn said Thursday that the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction in the space.

“If we are going to get serious about doing this, Judiciary needs to be looking at what we would bring to the table on our piece of that puzzle rather than waiting for something to come to us” and then delay a legislative proposal for another six months or a year, she said.

Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) previously set a goal of introducing a bill before the August recess. That informal deadline appears unlikely, with just over two weeks left before the Senate departs for five weeks on Aug. 2.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Commerce working group who led the efforts on privacy legislation last year as the panel’s chairman, said he doesn’t think the August goal is achievable.

“There’s a lot of work being done on legislation, but I doubt that there’d be anything at this point probably released,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Thune acknowledged the work has slowed down, but said he’s keeping his eyes on legislation by the end of the year, before California’s law goes into effect.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at; Giuseppe Macri at; Loren Duggan at