President Joe Biden this week issued what may be his strongest statement to date on privacy.
In commentary published in The Wall Street Journal, he urged Congress to put aside partisanship and pass legislation to “hold Big Tech accountable.”
“Big Tech companies collect huge amounts of data on the things we buy, on the websites we visit, on the places we go and, most troubling of all, on our children,” he wrote.
“We need serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy,” Biden added. “That means clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data -- your internet history, your personal communications, your location, and your health, genetic and biometric data.”
He went on to call for new limits on data collection and targeted advertising, as well as a ban on targeted ads directed at children.
While Biden did not explicitly refer to the bipartisan American Data Privacy Protection Act, that bill, introduced last year, would have imposed some of the restrictions Biden is seeking.
Among other provisions, the measure would have prohibited the collection or processing of data about web users' cross-site activity for advertising purposes. Such a ban would have effectively outlawed a common form of online behavioral ad targeting.
The bill would have allowed companies to continue to draw on data collected from their own sites in order to serve targeted ads to adults, on an opt-out basis. The measure also would have prohibited companies from serving targeted ads to children or teens younger than 17.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), who co-sponsored the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, cheered Biden's column.
“There is a lot of opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together to rein in #BigTech and update our nation’s online privacy laws,” Pallone tweeted.
Privacy advocate Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says Biden's public call for limits on data collection could open the door for a bipartisan deal “enhancing digital rights, especially for young people.”
He adds that Biden's statement signals strong support for the Federal Trade Commission, which recently began the lengthy process of crafting online privacy rules. Some Republican lawmakers have criticized that effort, arguing that privacy standards should be set by Congress, not the FTC.
Meanwhile, the policy group Chamber of Progress, funded by the tech industry, defended online ad targeting.
"Targeted advertising creates significant benefits for consumers, content creators, and for competition,” Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said Thursday in an emailed statement. “It allows consumers to access information, such as news content, without having to pay. It also supports individual content creators, such as artists, musicians, and social activists, allowing voices outside of the mainstream to reach a broader audience.”
The industry self-regulatory organization Network Advertising Initiative responded to Biden's proposal by expressing support for the idea that companies should limit the use of sensitive data, such as location and health information, but arguing that “responsible data uses enhance our economy and should not be curtailed.”