Opinion

Everyone Has a Stake in Privacy Legislation

While we have become accustomed to partisan rancor in many areas of policy, at least one major issue looks ready to overcome political gridlock. Across party lines, lawmakers recognize the need to give internet users better protections to oversee companies that collect and use their personal online information.

A new internet privacy law with a single, uniform standard for the internet will provide clarity for millions of online users who value their privacy. But it may have other important benefits: stabilizing compliance costs for internet companies which could, in turn, foster an environment for investment and innovation.

Congress began ramping up its focus on internet privacy last year as each week seemed to bring news of yet another online data scandal. There were massive privacy scandals involving Facebook/Cambridge AnalyticaGoogle+QuoraMarriottEquifax and many others. These data breaches made the fragile nature of doing business online very personal  and stoked a new level of fear among consumers.

Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to spur Federal Trade Commission action on this issue. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who introduced an online privacy bill last year with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is reportedly preparing his own bill. As shown in last year’s proposals, online privacy protection clearly transcends party lines, with multiple bills introduced by joint Democratic and Republican sponsors.

Congressional action on a uniform privacy standard for all internet companies cannot come fast enough. That’s because this issue has begun percolating in state legislatures and state action would upend the country’s long legal tradition of national standards over the internet.  Many fear that state action could lead to a spike in litigation and continued confusion among consumers as they engage in daily online activities.

That result could raise the cost of high-speed internet access and popular free online services (like Gmail and Google Docs) as well as undercut efforts to promote better and faster broadband access, especially to those who need better service.

Last June, California passed what USA Today called the “nation’s toughest online privacy law.” Barely a month into their 2019 legislative sessions, five other states are poised to take action with online privacy legislation introduced or drafted.

Though well-intentioned, the idea of a patchwork quilt of state privacy laws that would stop at each state’s border is deeply concerning. Multiple layers of privacy rules could result in higher compliance costs, which could affect smaller ISPs operating in small towns and rural areas. These companies often provide competitive options for internet service to people who live miles from town centers.

Worse, state and other privacy efforts often do not equally target all companies operating online. When privacy rules target internet service providers alone, they leave personal data open to further exposure.  For a privacy law to truly protect consumers, it must encompass everyone within the internet ecosystem.

While urban areas often have a handful of choices for high-speed broadband services, many rural communities have few, or even a single choice for Internet service.  A recent CNET headline on rural broadband says it all: “Why rural areas can’t catch a break on speedy broadband.”

As Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put it in a recent tweet, 12 million students lack sufficient internet access to do their homework.

Prompt passage of a uniform privacy standard for all companies on the internet could provide the stability needed for industry to invest in new forms of wireless internet service. The recent launch of fixed-wireless technology has begun delivering ultra-fast internet service that can be deployed more quickly than other broadband technologies.

Last September, Sen. John Thune, a great friend of rural communities, said in a Senate hearing that a Federal privacy law “enjoys strong bipartisan support.” Every member at that hearing, both Democrat and Republican, agreed. For the sake of faster broadband deployment, it’s time for Congress to make this privacy standard a reality.

Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange and a member of the FCC Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

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