GAO: Congress Should Consider Comprehensive Privacy Legislation

The Government Accountability Office is recommending that Congress consider coming up with comprehensive internet privacy legislation, something both sides of the aisle have been saying needs to happen.

That is according to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, who released the report Wednesday (Feb. 13).

The report, which chairman Pallone requested, found that while most industry stakeholders favored the current approach of the Federal Trade Commission enforcing unfair and deceptive practices rather than new rules or res, consumer advocates and, according to GAO, most former FTC and FCC commissioners it interviewed (from both Bush and Obama administrations), favored having the FTC issue enforceable regulations.

GAO recommended that Congress should at least "consider" coming up with "comprehensive legislation on Internet privacy that would enhance consumer protections and provide flexibility to address a rapidly evolving Internet environment. Issues that should be considered include what authorities agencies should have in order to oversee Internet privacy [including civil penalty authority for first time offenses], including appropriate rulemaking authority."

Pallone will try to get that ball rolling with the committee's first privacy hearing under new, Democratic, control, which he has scheduled for Feb. 26 in the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

Related: Dems Introduce Data Protection Duties Bill

“Since I requested this report, the need for comprehensive data privacy and security legislation at the federal level has only become more apparent," said Pallone. "From the Cambridge Analytica scandal [Facebook's oversharing of data with that third party] to the unauthorized disclosures of real-time location data, consumers’ privacy is being violated online and offline in alarming and dangerous ways. This detailed GAO report makes clear now is the time for comprehensive congressional action on privacy that should include ensuring any agency that oversees consumer privacy has the tools to protect consumers. These recommendations and findings will be helpful as we look to develop privacy legislation in the coming months.”

While GAO couches its recommendation with words like "consider" and plenty of conditional language, as is its practice, it clearly suggests legislation would be a good thing.

"Comprehensive legislation addressing Internet privacy that establishes specific standards and includes APA notice-and-comment rulemaking and first-time violation civil penalty authorities could help enhance the federal government’s ability to protect consumer privacy, provide more certainty in the marketplace as companies innovate and develop new products using consumer data, and provide better assurance to consumers that their privacy will be protected."

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.