Advocacy Groups Press Pelosi To Hold Vote On Privacy Bill

Dozens of advocacy groups are urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on the proposed American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which would impose broad restrictions on companies' ability to collect and harness online data.

“The time is now to pass a comprehensive federal privacy and civil rights law,” 48 organizations including the Center for Democracy & Technology, Electronic Privacy Information Center, New America's Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge say in a letter sent Thursday to the Democratic lawmaker from California.

“We fear that a failure to move the bill in this Congress will forestall progress on this issue for years to come,” the groups add.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced the bipartisan bill by a vote of 53-2 last month. Among a host of new restrictions, the bill would prohibit companies from collecting or processing data about people's cross-site activity for ad purposes. That ban would effectively prevent companies from serving ads to web users based on their browsing activity.

Other provisions would still allow companies to draw on data collected from their own sites in order to serve targeted ads to adults, on an opt-out basis. The measure would also prohibit companies from serving targeted ads to children or teens younger than 17.

The major ad organizations oppose the measure, arguing to lawmakers that it would harm the “data-driven economy by prohibiting the collection and use of basic demographic and online activity data for efficient, responsible advertising.”

The ad industry isn't the only one expressing concerns. California's Privacy Protection Agency also opposes the bill because it would override the bulk of that state's landmark law.

“Everyone in the United States should enjoy strong privacy protections. But those rights should not come at the expense of existing rights,” California Privacy Protection Agency executive director Ashkan Soltani said in a letter sent last week to Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California).

“This is particularly important in an era in which Roe v. Wade has been overruled,” Soltani wrote. “Today more than ever, it is important that states be able to build on their existing laws and allow their voters to seek out the additional protections they require.”

He added that several other federal privacy laws, such as the federal video privacy law, allow states to pass stronger measures.

Soltani also argued that the federal bill is “substantively weaker” than the California law, but others disagree with that assessment. Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, for instance, testified last month to the California agency that the federal bill is “not perfect,” but “far stronger than existing California law.”

“If a federal law passes, Californians will immediately have greater privacy protections,” Leibowitz told the agency. “If it fails, the biggest winners are the cyberazzi who hoover up all of our data.”

The groups that support the federal American Data Privacy and Protection Act note that it differs from California's law in several ways, including that the federal measure would consumers to sue over privacy violations.

The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation also says that a federal privacy law shouldn't override state laws.

That organization argues that federal bills shouldn't override state laws -- regardless of whether the federal measure is stronger or weaker than a local law.

Hayley Tsukayama, senior legislative analyst with the group, writes while debate about the federal proposal “has centered largely on whether or not it's stronger than current state privacy laws, therefore lowering the bar for the country right now,” that's not the only factor.

“We must also look to the future,” she writes. “The ability to pass bills at the state and local level is one of the strongest points of leverage that people have in the fight for data privacy.”

But the advocacy groups that support the American Data Privacy and Protection Act say the bill reflects a “meaningful compromise,” that will “bring relief to millions today.”

“Congress has the opportunity to act now to protect people’s data,” the groups write.

Even if the House moves forward, as the advocacy groups urge, the bill's fate in the Senate is uncertain. To date, Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) reportedly says she wants to see the bill strengthened before moving forward.

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