Where do US watchdogs stand compared to international peers? Good question
Many of the world’s governments have privacy watchdogs, and some, like the United States, have created little-noticed independent privacy overseers in multiple agencies.
But unlike with most governments, including autocratic China, where national leaders try to find or impose a center of gravity for privacy regulation, U.S. policy looks like a game of badminton.
Proposed legislation and decisions that are ultimately lightweight and hard to follow get batted around, preventing substantive policy making.
Maybe the best example to date is the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was shown in high relief this week after The Washington Post reported that the independent watchdog has a quorum and a chairperson for the first time since 2017, when the Trump administration arrived.
Known by the unappetizing acronym PCLOB, the board was formed in 2004 to help the White House to not trample the privacy rights and civil liberties of citizens when fighting terrorism abroad. The board has not (or has not been able to) distinguish itself.
Sharon Bradford Franklin was approved as board chair by Congress (by identity-obscuring voice vote). According to Reuters, Franklin is former executive director of the group as well as a current co-director of the privacy advocating Security and Surveillance Project.
Beth Williams, a former partner with Kirkland & Ellis likewise was approved. Williams was a U.S. assistant attorney general.
It is difficult to judge the board’s performance. On its site, the group lists mostly ongoing project reviews. One concluded project involved a review of the Department of Treasuries terrorist finance tracking program.
Last December, in Canada, that nation’s privacy commissioner reported that long-term and continuous efforts had found state surveillance has ebbed and flowed. Domestic surveillance has been constrained to some degree since 9/11 but it is still a threat.
Former Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said he wanted to reform UK privacy laws, putting more daylight between how the UK and the European Union view the topic. That means a more pro-business agenda.
That sounds moderate enough, but Dowden also nominated for information commissioner John Edwards. Edwards, a New Zealander, is, of course, pro-business, but it depends on the business. He got the job.
He has called Facebook’s executives “morally bankrupt pathological liars,” according to Sky News. Edwards is viewed as a hard-nosed pragmatist when it comes to data protection.
In France, the National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties, or CNIL, is one of the most active privacy watchdogs. Last month, it successfully defended its record €100 million ($112 million) fine against Google.
In 2020, the commission decided it was illegal for Google to put cookies on devices immediately upon arriving on google.fr.