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Lawmakers paint grim picture of US data privacy in defending APRA

Subcommittee points accusing finger at Big Tech in pushing national data privacy law
Lawmakers paint grim picture of US data privacy in defending APRA

The U.S. Subcommittee on Innovation, Data, and Commerce is marking up proposed legislation – and taking names. In remarks opening a hearing of three legislative proposals aimed at protecting children from online harms and preserving Americans’ data privacy rights, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers evokes the fearsome specter of “digital tyranny.”

“Many believed that the internet could empower the individual even more by creating new ways for people and businesses to connect, innovate, and share information,” says Rodgers. “Unfortunately, trust has been broken. Instead, over time our identity has been slowly eroded, our freedom to think for ourselves manipulated. And Big Tech is capturing more and more data to surveil and control over our lives. Americans should be in control of how that information is disclosed, and it should be voluntary, not coerced.”

At the center of the debate is the American Privacy Rights Act (APRA), the push for a federal data privacy law that would either simplify a patchwork of individual state laws – or run roughshod over existing privacy legislation, depending on which state is offering an opinion. While harmonizing divergent laws seems wise as a general measure, states like California, where data privacy laws are already much stricter than in most places, worry about its preemptive clauses weakening their hard-fought privacy protections.

Rodgers says APRA is “an opportunity for a reset, one that can help return us to the American Dream our Founders envisioned. It gives people the right to control their personal information online, something the American people overwhelmingly want,” she says. “They’re tired of having their personal information abused for profit.”

From loose permissions on sharing location data to exposed search histories, there are far too many holes in Americans’ digital privacy for Rodgers’ liking. Pointing to the especially sensitive matter of childrens’ data, she says that “as our kids scroll, companies collect nearly every data point imaginable to build profiles on them and keep them addicted. They intentionally target children with dangerous and life-threatening content.”

As a solution, she calls APRA “a common sense, bipartisan, bicameral proposal,” and also endorses two other bills under review, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0) and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).

Age verification for social media part of APRA plan

Comments from Rodger’s colleague, Innovation, Data, and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Gus Bilirakis, go deeper into what APRA proposes to provide. In addition to companies who may try and monetize or exploit data without consent, Bilirakis says the bill also “directs strong data security standards that minimize and protect against data being used by bad actors, and provides Americans notice if their data is being transferred to a foreign adversary, like China, and allows consumers the choice to opt-out.”

“We are also discussing proposals that require age verification for certain websites and social media companies, streamline terms of service labeling, and allow third party software providers to make social networks safer,” Bilirakis says.

“We know that Big Tech has failed to prioritize the health and safety of our children online, resulting in a significant increase in mental health conditions, suicide, and drug overdose deaths. It is time for Big Tech to be held accountable for facilitating this activity and manipulating our kids to keep them addicted to their screens for longer than ever before.”

Not everyone at the hearing was as satisfied with the bills in question. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, specifically raised the issue of protecting biometric data. In Schakowsky’s comments at the hearing, she says she is “disappointed that there is not the consideration of making sure that we are protecting consumers’ biometric data.

“You can’t change that information,” Schakowsky points out. “That’s forever.”

Rodgers has agreed to work with Schakowsky on clearer definitions and protocols for biometric data.

A video recording of the hearing, available on YouTube, also includes a spirited discussion about a bill to preserve Americans’ access to AM radio.

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