As we near the critical midterm elections, we must question how Congress is going to protect our rights to privacy — especially in light of the revelations about foreign efforts to manipulate our elections. The process of educating new voters, registering them, protecting them against voter suppression is almost invalidated if voters feel like their votes are manipulated anyway due to lax data sharing models of internet companies.
It’s one thing for a company we know to scan our email in return for giving us free access to their product. As long as there is full transparency and the Terms of Service are written in plainly understandable terms, this sort of trade-off benefits both groups and helps promote new services.
The bigger problem happens when that same company gathers vast amounts of our personal information in other areas, such as our product searches and websites we visit, without our approval or even knowledge.
Companies that we may never have heard of are tracking our movements, monetizing and sharing our most private data. Even worse, breaches of our trust in how our information is used and shared — when companies willingly share information with untrustworthy vendors and promote a business model that capitalizes on individualized data — have allowed Americans’ civic lives to be influenced, our democracy to be hacked.
Some states around the country have responded by trying to craft their own privacy rules. While well-intentioned, this is not set up for success. Today’s sprawling system of content delivery networks makes tracking internet data as it crosses state lines a technological nightmare. And when we think about how our data on the internet operates as an interstate commerce issue, state-based regulation is not enough. We need federal, congressional-level action.
The internet is too important in our lives, our organizing, our elections, to have companies monetizing our personal information without our knowledge, or to have foreign actors covertly influencing the make-up of our government — no matter how significant that influence is.
Some congressional leaders have started the conversation on increasing privacy protections, but any conversation must begin with the fact that the United States doesn’t have standard privacy legislation. We need a federal law establishing a single privacy standard that applies across the internet — search engines, advertisers, websites, third party tracking software, internet providers, and everyone else.
Uniform privacy standards are critical to forming Terms of Service that translate legalese into something all consumers, including Limited English Proficient communities, can easily understand. That will set a foundation for true privacy protection and holding those who should be responsible for protecting data accountable.
A new online privacy law should guarantee consumers transparency in how our data is collected and how it is shared. Such a law could also include protections like proactive opt-ins for sharing personally identifiable information, limiting how long companies can hold consumer information before being required to purge, allowing consumers to “move” their data from one system to another, and requiring timely notifications from companies when there is a data security breach. We must know who wants to access our online habits, and be given the choice to opt out. Above all, we need an end to unknown companies behind mysterious corporate walls vacuuming up what we do online and selling it to the highest bidders without our consent.
Internet companies are taking advantage of us without our knowledge and leveraging our information to bring in billions for shareholders. This situation ultimately risks the internet’s growth by jeopardizing public confidence.
By working with consumers, internet companies, internet service providers, and privacy advocates to pass an updated, uniform set of privacy rules based on choice and transparency, Congress will help internet users and contribute to a more unified set of global standards. We have already seen many examples this year — last, the year before — of data abuses causing harm not just to the growth of the internet, but to the trust voters have in our democracy. The privacy problem has gotten out of hand. Congress should have already acted to protect consumers online, but it is never too late.
Alvina Yeh is the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO.
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