Corporate Tech Giants Invited, But Consumer Advocacy Groups Shut Out of Senate Hearing on Data Privacy

“The absence of consumer representatives all but ensures a narrow discussion, focused on policy alternatives favored by business groups.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 9-19-2018

More than two dozen consumer groups are urging the Senate Commerce Committee to reconsider its witness list—which only includes industry representatives—for an upcoming hearing on data privacy policy. (Photo: Blogtrepreneur/flickr/cc)

While representatives for Apple, AT&T, Amazon, Charter Communications, Google, and Twitter are all slated to testify at a Sept. 26 Senate hearing about safeguarding consumer data privacy, the nation’s leading consumer advocacy groups weren’t invited—and they’re not happy about it.

In a letter (pdf) to the leaders of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on Wednesday, 28 groups expressed their “surprise and concern that not a single consumer representative was invited to testify” and called on committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to reconsider the witness list.

“The absence of consumer representatives,” the letter warns, “all but ensures a narrow discussion, focused on policy alternatives favored by business groups.”

Signatories to the letter include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Common Cause, the Digital Privacy Alliance, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Free Press Action Fund, and U.S. PIRG.

The powerful corporations invited to testify, the public interest organizations charge, likely will not “recommend baseline legislation, heightened penalties for data breaches, the end of arbitration clauses, the establishment of a privacy agency in the U.S., techniques for data minimization, or algorithmic transparency to prevent secret profiling of American consumers.”

“How can members of the committee develop sensible solutions if they are not even aware of the full range of options?” the letter poses.

“While we have no objection to the participation of business groups in the Senate hearings on consumer privacy, the Senate’s first instinct should be to hear from the American public on these important issues,” it concludes, reminding the committee leaders that the Senate “is first and foremost a public institution, accountable to the people.”

Recent polling shows the people want tougher rules for major tech and internet firms. Pew found in June that the majority of Americans “believe these companies should be regulated more than they are now.”

Consumer advocates worry that industry representatives will not only leave out key proposals to protect privacy, but also actively discourage lawmakers from adopting stricter policies to serve the public interest.

“Some of these companies have spent heavily to oppose consumer privacy legislation and have never supported consumer privacy laws,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation—one of the letter’s signees—notes in a blog post. “They know policymakers are considering new privacy protections, and are likely to view this hearing as a chance to encourage Congress to adopt the weakest privacy protections possible—and eviscerate stronger state protections at the same time.”

EFF also emphasizes that “when this Congress has taken action on privacy hazards, whether from the government or from corporations, it has pro-actively stripped us of our privacy protections,” suggesting that “internet users should wonder whether the upcoming Senate Commerce hearing is just a prelude to yet another rollback of privacy protections.”

Thune claimed in a statement that the purpose of the hearing is to “provide leading technology companies and internet service providers an opportunity to explain their approaches to privacy, how they plan to address new requirements from the European Union and California, and what Congress can do to promote clear privacy expectations without hurting innovation.”

“Beyond that, it’s not clear exactly what the point of the hearing is,” TechCrunch reported when it was announced last week. This will be the second committee hearing this year to focus on consumer data privacy, following Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s April testimony. Facebook, as TechCrunch points out, is “noticeably absent” from the tentative witness list for Sept. 26.

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