Sen. Hawley Blasts Tech Companies Over Privacy Violations

Senate newcomer Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate tech companies, including Google and Facebook, over their “repeated deceptions of consumers and encroachments on user privacy.”

“These companies have failed us. Washington has failed us. The FTC has a special role to play in protecting consumers, but it too has failed us,” Hawley says Monday in a letter to FTC Chair Joseph Simons. “Any robust definition of consumer welfare must acknowledge that these companies have harmed consumers by conditioning participation in the modern public square on giving away enormous -- and growing -- amounts of personal information and by leveraging scale to cripple emerging competitors in their infancy.”

His letter comes one day before a planned Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about privacy.

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Hawley provided a list of examples of “alarming” activity by Facebook and Google that has generated criticism. Among others, Facebook allegedly combined its information about users with data provided by users to WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014.

In 2016, WhatsApp said it planned to begin sharing data about users, including their phone numbers, with Facebook.

The following year, authorities in Europe fined Facebook $122 million for allegedly misleading officials about its ability to automatically combine data about its users with those of the messaging service WhatsApp. When European Commission considered whether to approve Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp, Facebook allegedly indicated that it wasn't able to automatically link users of both companies.

Hawley also said Google “consistently misinformed users about its use of geolocation data, continuing to collect data even when users disabled location services.”

The lawmaker was apparently referring to a 2017 report by the Associated Press, which said Google stores location data gleaned from some services -- including search and maps -- even when people turn off the "Location History" setting. People who want to prevent Google from storing any location data must turn off a separate setting -- "Web and App Activity."

(After the AP's report came out, Google revised a help page to inform people that turning off Location History doesn't affect other location services, and that some location data may still be saved.)

Hawley says in his letter that Congress “bears primary responsibility” for privacy matters, but adds that he is concerned that the FTC “has not investigated these companies and enforced the law as vigorously as it should.”

Privacy advocates have made many of the same arguments for years. For instance, in 2016, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy urged the FTC to investigate, arguing that the new policy represented a significant change from WhatsApp's prior promises to never share users' personally identifiable information. The FTC didn't take any public action as a result of that request.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says Hawley's criticism reflects lawmakers' increasing willingness to tackle privacy.

“The pressure is building in Washington to finally rein in the ‘wild west’ business practices of the digital data giants,” he says. “The data driven bad conduct of both Google and Facebook has helped trigger a growing bipartisan movement to regulate the industry.”  

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