Congress Pays Lip Service to Consumer Data Privacy

By: Katie McAuliffe

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled “Protecting Consumer Privacy”. This was the first hearing Congress held about this issue in 9 months. The hearing came at a pertinent time with the Federal Trade Commission recently announcing interest into creating rules related to privacy.  

Panel Says FTC Needs More Resources. But is this the Right FTC?

The main focus of the hearing was about the role of the Federal Trade Commission in managing consumer data privacy. Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D–WA) asked each witness during the hearing if the FTC needed more resources to effectively enforce consumer privacy rules. Every witness agreed

There was some discussion about what those resources should be. While the need for additional funding was an accepted reality, professor David Vladeck and Ashkan Soltani both testified that the Commission needs more technical expertise. Specifically, the Commission needs technologists and experts in the fields of algorithms and artificial intelligence to verify the information the Commission received. Professor Vladeck stated that during his tenure at the FTC, there was never more than a cohort of 10 technologists to advise the commission on these matters. 

Increasing cash at the FTC has been a frequent legislative proposal in the past year where Congressional Democrats have proposed increasing the commissions funds to better enforce antitrust laws and consumer privacy

Congress Should Lead on Privacy. Not the FTC

There was some pushback on whether the FTC is the right institution to be setting privacy standards. Ranking member of the Committee Roger Wicker (R-MS) was adamant that a privacy standard should originate in Congress. Former FTC Acting Chair Marie Olhausen also testified that a privacy rulemaking by the FTC likely would not preempt existing state laws and would only add a 51st layer of complexity to consumer privacy rules that companies would need to navigate. Professor Vladeck disagreed on the preemption issue but supported the position that a privacy standard should come from Congress, stating that “an FTC rule would not be anyone’s first choice.”  

Protecting consumer privacy is an issue that needs to be acted on. And with members of the committee floating ideas for new privacy legislation, hopefully progress can be made. 

You can watch the hearing HERE