Senate Dems Introduce Privacy Bill of Rights

A Democrat-backed comprehensive online privacy bill, the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA), has been introduced that would be sort of an adult version of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) already on the books. 

Related: FTC Extends COPPA Comment Deadline

The bill was introduced Tuesday (Nov. 26) by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), co-sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.)--Markey was the author of COPPA, and immediately drew reaction from inside the Beltway.

The bill's goal is to create "foundational data privacy rights, create strong oversight mechanisms, and establish meaningful enforcement." 

A pair of House Democrats earlier this month introduced a bill, H.H. 4978, the Online Privacy Act, that would create a privacy bill of rights and a new government agency to enforce those rights.

“In the growing online world, consumers deserve two things: privacy rights and a strong law to enforce them,” said Cantwell. “They should be like your Miranda rights [you have the right to remain silent, etc.]—clear as a bell as to what they are and what constitutes a violation.” 

Both Republicans and Democrats support comprehensive privacy legislation, but they will need to get on the same page and the same bill if it is to pass. The Cantwell bill would provide a privacy Bill of Rights, something the Obama Administration sought without success. 

Those consumer rights include the right to delete info, to correct inaccuracies, to control the use of info--opt in for collection of sensitive data, for example--the right to data minimization--limit info use to only what is necessary to perform a specific function and only with permission--data security, the right to transparency, the right to data portability, the right to data security, the protection of civil rights, a prohibition on the waiver of rights, and more. There is a carveout for smaller businesses. 

Related: Dems Renew Call for Privacy Bill of Rights

There would be civil penalties for violations, whistleblower protections, and much more. To check out a summary of the Cantwell bill, click here. 

While the Dems and their supporters saw them as necessary rights, some critics were quick to suggest they were "wrongs." 

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) vice president Daniel Castro saw the rights primarily as wrongs when it came to spurring innovation. 

"This legislation fails to strike the right balance between consumer privacy and commercial innovation. It would severely restrict legitimate uses of consumer data, limiting the opportunities for companies to collect, use, and share data to innovate in the digital economy," Castro said. "The main beneficiary of this legislation appears to be privacy lawyers, as companies would be forced to spend millions on legal services to update privacy notices, hire dedicated privacy officers, and defend themselves against civil suits.  

"This bill reflects the wish list of certain privacy activists who are uninterested in the economic impact of data protection legislation," he said. "Make no mistake, it would be a recipe for spoiling the digital economy." 

He said Congress should keep working on bipartisan legislation "that streamlines regulation, preempts state laws, establishes basic consumer data rights, and minimizes the impact on innovation." 

Privacy for America applauded the idea of legislation, generally, but not this particular tack.

“The announcement today from Senators Cantwell, Klobuchar, Schatz and Markey constitutes a thoughtful contribution toward a comprehensive federal privacy bill," the group said. "The bill contains concrete language providing important consumer protections, and it offers a solid basis for discussion moving forward. Privacy for America shares the common goal of providing strong protections for consumers that would stop practices that put personal data at risk of breach or misuse. At the same time, Privacy for America is concerned that, as currently constructed, the bill would allow a patchwork of state laws and not produce the strong, single set of consumer protections that would preserve the economies of scale, consumer benefits, and innovation that accompany the responsible use of data."

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) was similarly circumspect

“ITI stands ready to work with policymakers to achieve our mutual goal of enacting a law that meaningfully protects consumers and supports continued U.S. innovation and advancements in areas like medicine, transportation, commerce, and education,” said ITI President Jason Oxman. “While we don’t agree with everything in this measure – like the absence of strong preemption, which leads to inconsistent protection of individuals across state lines – it, like other measures that have been introduced, provides a basis for Republicans and Democrats to advance this important conversation.”

Free Press Action senior policy counsel Gaurav Laroia saw the enumerated privacy rights as the right stuff.

"We commend Senator Cantwell and her cosponsors for introducing legislation that puts the public interest before the interests of the companies that make astronomical profits from selling our data," said Laroia. 

“The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act would restore power over our data to the people. It would allow internet users to sue companies in court, with the potential of very costly consequences for those wrongly exploiting our data. Companies need to know they will face stiff penalties for violating people’s rights. The enforcement provisions in this bill would give any company second thoughts about continuing the unscrupulous practices that have dominated this industry for over two decades." 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.