If the president is genuine on data privacy and security, specifics would help.
The 2023 State of the Union address brought about mixed results for data privacy followers and for all Americans. On one hand, privacy and data collection got shout-outs, but it was not more than we have already heard from the White House. If the president is genuine about acting on data privacy and security, he must move beyond generic calls for action and offer a concrete position. The president called for bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids, a ban on targeted ads to kids and stricter limits on personal data collection. There was no mention of the historic bipartisan privacy legislation introduced last Congress, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA), nothing concrete on how to move forward, and no mention of the data privacy and security risk holistically.
It is helpful to review what the president said in the 2022 State of the Union address to get a fuller picture of his stance. Last year, President Joe Biden essentially called for the same as this year: strengthening privacy protections, banning targeted ads to kids and demanding tech companies to stop collecting personal data on kids. While strengthening privacy protections was mentioned, it was in a section dedicated to kids. There was no call for federal legislation and no direct connection to privacy concerns facing all Americans. The only real difference in the 2023 address was that bipartisan privacy legislation was flagged and all Americans were considered.
Against the 2022 stance, the president’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Republicans and Democrats, Unite Against Big Tech Abuses,” became one of the first and loudest statements from the administration on data privacy and security. This shifted the view to risks posed for “ordinary Americans” and highlighted potential issues with data misuse. The direct call for “serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy” was a good step, although combining it with a slew of anti-Big-Tech rhetoric and broader controversial tech measures reduced the effectiveness of this call and overshined the privacy focus.
A hopeful sign that the 2023 address might have contained a strong privacy stance was the White House’s “Fact Sheet” released before the speech. In that, the president expanded in the greatest detail yet on his desire to “protect kids online” and “strengthen data privacy and platform accountability for all Americans.” Specifically, he flagged the data collection risk and the need for strict limits on collection, use and transfer of data.
How, then, do we move forward in 2023?
First, the president should more closely work with Congress to find a solution. In an ideal world, he would support moving the ADPPA forward and help break down challenges experienced in the 117th Congress. For example, we did not see consensus between key leaders in the Senate and House and a California versus the United States trend developed over whether a federal law should override state privacy laws. The support from members of Congress is there, evidenced recently by member comments in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing and applause for privacy in the State of the Union.
Second, we need to remember that action is not just a matter of helping consumers. While that is important, there are broader benefits. This includes helping industry like small- and medium-sized businesses, advancing America’s competitive stance on the global stage and strengthening national security.
Third, we need to move away from the notion that data privacy and security risks are caused solely by Big Tech. Data privacy and security risks do not depend on company size. There are countless examples of small and medium-sized companies, and even large non-tech companies, employing terrible data privacy and security practices involving highly sensitive data. Relatedly, we should keep action on privacy focused on privacy. Adding in other controversial measures, like antitrust, content moderation and Section 230, are sure ways to stall progress. This means acting on legislation that protects the data privacy and security of all Americans, not just kids.
While it is always great to hear data privacy get mentioned by the president, hopefully it appears next year as a bipartisan accomplishment.
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