Postponing Federal Digital Privacy Legislation Will Backfire

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, Americans are turning to technology more than ever. However, federal legislation addressing digital privacy protections has stalled in Congress. Comprehensive legislation needs to be passed to ensure consumers right to digital privacy.

Many functions of everyday life that have been carried out in person have recently moved online. During the outbreak period, 53% of Americans said the internet has been essential while an additional 34% said it was “important, but not essential.” Zoom, Skype, and other video call apps have become popular interfaces for individuals and businesses who cannot conduct physically conduct their affairs.

While the internet is a useful resource, it has become host to information that might otherwise be used elsewhere. Now that larger amounts of private information are being exchanged digitally, consumers need to know that their right to privacy is protected.

Unsurprisingly, consumers have grown more concerned about their online privacy in recent years, and the increase in internet use since onset of the pandemic only intensifies these concerns.

A key concern about online privacy is that personal information can be unknowingly shared with third parties. Consumers may agree to disclose some information to one platform, but it is unclear who else (such as search engines and advertisers) will also receive that information. If a consumer’s preferences are known, it becomes much easier to provide them targeted advertising and relevant search results. This information can be used to build consumer profiles which are often shared with services the consumer does not use. It’s acceptable for a service to analyze data they have permission to view, but sharing or selling it to outside services crosses the line.

Federal legislation would resolve many of consumers’ concerns about data privacy. Recent lawsuits have taken aim at the issue, but only legislation would provide a long-term solution for consumers across the country. For example, the Attorney General of Arizona recently sued Google over allegations that the company was monitoring the location of its users through the GPS on their smartphones. Additionally, a suit by the Attorney General of New Mexico alleged that Google violated its privacy policy by mining student data for its own commercial purposes. Consumers are not happy about giving away data without their consent, and for good reason.

Federal privacy legislation would clarify their rights and protections. It is important that consumers understand what data is protected and what protections they may choose to forego when agreeing to a privacy policy. Tech companies ask consumers to accept lengthy and nebulous user agreements that give consumers little idea of how their data is being used. More consumer-friendly agreements are needed to give consumers a better idea about the use of their individual data.

Creating a mandatory opt-in agreement in layman’s language will provide a necessary level of transparency.

Additionally, Congress should call for mandatory data disaggregation. Data disaggregation is the process of breaking down data into smaller subsections and removing the link between important pieces of data and the person they are attached to. This is a common practice in medical research used to protect patient privacy, and ought to be applied to digital consumer data.

Comprehensive Federal legislation should include this practice to ensure private information is not shared beyond what consumers allow.

In a time when Americans are using online services more than ever, they should be given the peace of mind that private information remains private. Comprehensive federal legislation outlining protections on consumer data is a necessary step in ensuring Americans’ right to privacy is protected.

Owen Macaulay is a policy intern with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal

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