Tech experts expect the new Democratic majority in the House will prompt a fresh wave of tech industry scrutiny that will likely result in bipartisan legislation. And at the top of the to-do list is consumer data protection and privacy.
“There’s a lot of anger about how the Equifax data breach went down and how there’s been no repercussions for that,” Philip Berenboick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge told InsideSources. “Since Equifax we’ve had the data breach with Facebook, the Cambridge Analytica situation with Facebook, and other data breaches with Target and Sony, so data protection and consumer privacy is something that’s really ripe for action from a committee. That’s probably something we’ll see in the first quarter.”
And a Democratic majority also means more aggressive oversight of the tech industry and the federal agencies who regulate it.
“I think there’s going to be a lot more oversight on telecom companies and those companies are going to get called up to the Hill for hearings,” he said. “There are lots of committees that have oversight over tech issues and a lot of Democrats who have watched Republicans hold hearing after hearing where they bring in witnesses from industry-friendly think tanks and right-wing advocacy organizations. I think we’re going to see a lot more witnesses that have a consumer protection bent and more hearings focused on what government is and isn’t doing and how that’s impacting consumers, small business, competition. It’s going to be a more stark conversation than what we’ve been seeing over the last two years.”
Roslyn Layton, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in tech and internet policy, told InsideSources that because consumer data protection and privacy legislation are already bipartisan concerns highlighted in hearings over the past few months, she’s hopeful some kind of bipartisan cooperation on a consumer data protection and privacy bill will gain traction.
“The Democrats have wanted to demonstrate they’re on top of Silicon Valley and they can tame it, if you will,” she said. “Even with a divided Congress, there is a high probability that Congress will move forward on comprehensive privacy legislation. Both parties care about privacy, consumer protection and demonstrating that appropriate policy needs to be in place to discipline online actor when harm arises.”
Of course, the devil is in the details: as the last round of consumer data and privacy hearings showed, the tech industry and consumer advocates have very different ideas about how to approach legislation.
Lindsay Gorman, managing director at Politech Advisories, told InsideSources that while there’s potential for bipartisan cooperation, privacy legislation could easily devolve into symbolic politics.
“An interesting area to look at in data protection that will almost definitely come up is threats to democracy and election security,” she said. “There might be an opportunity for legislation that deals with these threats to democracy that arise from companies sharing personal data without many protections.” However, Gorman said, with the Russia hacking investigation in the background, “there’s a high chance it will be overly politicized and might be difficult to build any kind of consensus.”
The Center for Democracy and Technology’s (CDT) Vice President for Policy Chris Calabrese told InsideSources that there could be tension between Democrats and Republicans regarding how Democrats go about legislating the tech industry.
“I think it’s worth noting the Democrats have been cagey about what exactly they’re looking for in a privacy legislation and what they’re interested in pushing,” he said.
Echoing Gorman, Calabrese also thinks Democrats will go after data privacy as a national security issue.
“One area we will see additional work on the tech side is questions around misinformation and the use of tech to potentially influence elections,” Calabrese said. “I think we could use some more neutral and evidence-based analysis of that issue. Right now the question has been pretty partisan and tied very closely to particular legislative outcomes. Maybe now we can start to say, regardless of the outcomes of a particular election, what influence do we think this type of advertising has, and how do we make sure we have a policy debate that’s based on the facts rather than people just being upset about a specific legislative outcome?”