Washington’s Busy Year for Privacy Legislation

By Jackson Chen

With the calls for the creation of a comprehensive privacy law in the U.S., politicians from both sides of the aisle have proposed solutions.

In March, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., introduced the Consumer Data Privacy and Security Act, which aimed to create a federal standard for data-privacy protection.

It also sought to give consumers control over their data and restrict how businesses collect peoples’ data.

Moran’s bill also would give the Federal Trade Commission enforcement authority for these protections while offering the agency more resources.

The proposal is awaiting a hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee.

In the summer, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio, put forth his take on a comprehensive privacy bill.

Brown’s Data Accountability and Transparency Act, proposed in June, focused more on banning how certain companies interact with personal data.

The bill included banning the collection of personal data, outlawing facial-recognition technology use and prohibiting the use of personal data to discriminate in housing, employment and other areas.

It also would create an independent agency in charge of protecting privacy.

Brown, however, has yet to introduce his plan into the Senate. 

In September, four Republicans sponsored the SAFE DATA Act, which also called for a comprehensive privacy reform that would offer consumers more control over their data, force companies to be more transparent about how they handle data and strengthen the FTC’s ability to oversee privacy standards.

“Privacy is a bipartisan issue. … It’s one of those rare bipartisan issues you see in 2020.”

Pollyanna Sanderson, Future of Privacy Forum.

The proposal — introduced by GOP Sens. Roger Wicker, Miss.; John Thune, S.D.; Deb Fischer, Neb., and Marsha Blackburn, Tenn. — was referred to the Commerce Committee. 

In addition, New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a privacy-minded bill in February.

While not a comprehensive approach, the Data Protection Act, would establish a Data Protection Agency to address all matters related to personal data.

Gillibrand’s bill has seen no momentum. 

Despite the lack of progress this year that, likely caused by COVID-19, Pollyanna Sanderson, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, was optimistic that a comprehensive privacy law could be enacted during Democrat Joe Biden’s presidency.

Sanderson explained that privacy had attracted support from both parties — and that could lead to legislation being passed in the coming years.

“Privacy is a bipartisan issue — and it’s one of those rare bipartisan issues you see in 2020,” Sanderson told Digital Privacy News.

“There’s definitely room for a lot of consensus here, especially when you look at the pressure for the U.S. to have a privacy law on the international stage.”

In addition, several states and cities also proposed notable privacy-related bills this year:

  • In New York, Democratic State Sen. Kevin Thomas’ New York Privacy Act was referred back to the Senate’s Consumer Protection Committee in January.
  • Originally proposed in May 2019, the bill was expected to be New York’s more-comprehensive version of the California Consumer Privacy Act. The bill had a hearing in June 2019.
  • In Washington state, Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle released a draft for a comprehensive state privacy law in August in preparation for the 2021 legislative session. It is Carlyle’s third attempt at passing his bill, the Washington Privacy Act. It failed to pass the House of Representatives earlier this year.
  • Maine’s internet privacy law, the Act to Protect the Privacy of Online Customer Information, took effect in July, though the state’s attorney general delayed enforcement until August.
  • The law, signed by Democratic Mayor Janet Mills in June 2019, bars internet service providers from selling or sharing customers’ personal information without permission. 
  • Boston’s City Council voted unanimously in June to ban the use of facial recognition by any city official or agency. Following San Francisco’s ban last year, Boston’s move is seen as more momentum for big cities rejecting the technology.
  • In September, Portland, Ore., made waves across the country when its City Council adopted a law that bans private companies and city government from using face-recognition software.
  • While the city was not the first to approve such a ban, its decision remains the toughest in the country.

Jackson Chen is a writer in Groton, Conn.

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