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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Congress finally addresses data privacy

The Columbian
Published: April 10, 2024, 6:03am

After years of giving lip-service to the issue, Congress appears poised to address data privacy and the reach of Big Tech. Such attention is long overdue.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have announced a bipartisan framework for legislation to limit the personal information that companies can collect, retain and sell to advertisers or other interests. It would give consumers the right to opt out of specific data collection and use, including targeted advertising.

With McMorris Rodgers serving as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Cantwell leading the Senate Commerce Committee, the proposed American Privacy Rights Act carries some weight.

“This is a historic piece of legislation that we’ve been working on for several years,” McMorris Rodgers told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. “Online privacy protections shouldn’t differ across state lines. What we see is a patchwork of state laws developing, and this draft that Sen. Cantwell and I have agreed to will establish privacy protections that are stronger than any state law on the books.”

That patchwork of state laws demonstrates the scope of the problem. While Congress has held dozens of hearings to explore the issue of data privacy, significant legislation has not been forthcoming. The framework for broad regulations is a significant step — and a necessary one.

As The Spokesman-Review details: “In November, researchers at Duke University published a study that found data brokers sell the personal data of U.S. military personnel for as little as 12 cents per record. The New York Times reported in March that automakers share data on drivers, collected by their cars, with insurance companies that use the information to raise premiums. A fertility tracking app shared users’ health information with other companies, including Google and China-based marketing firms, according to a 2023 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.”

It is no secret that ubiquitous digital devices collect information about users. Giving Americans improved agency over how that information is shared is essential to protecting individual rights and bolstering public confidence in the benefits of the information age. Cantwell said: “It’s important that we get a federal law that makes privacy a consumer right, and that’s what this does. It basically is putting a policeman on the beat that doesn’t quite exist right now.”

In Washington, lawmakers last year passed legislation protecting consumers’ health data. In California, data-privacy measures have been enacted that are considered the strongest in the nation. In other states, various privacy laws have added to a labyrinth that is increasingly difficult to navigate. Some national standards are needed, and Cantwell said, “I think we have threaded a very important needle here.”

Congress has considered the issue in the recent past. A 2022 bill championed by McMorris Rodgers passed out of committee, but then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to bring it to the floor. Similar hurdles could exist for the new legislation, but increasing public attention suggests that it would be politically expedient for Congress to take action.

“We have to have a bright line here where we’re catching bad actors and policing the information age,” Cantwell told The Washington Post.

Establishing that line requires a steady hand to balance the rights of individuals with those of corporations and with state laws that already are in place. But it is encouraging that Congress is making a serious effort.