If Democrats win the House of Representatives in November, they'll be pushing for sweeping consumer privacy protections, including making it so you'd have to opt in to data collection and also ensuring net neutrality.
The so-called Internet Bill of Rights was drafted by Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley. Rather than a bill, for now it's simply a list of 10 principles that Khanna hopes will become part of a comprehensive legislative package that could be voted on next year.
The list includes protecting net neutrality, ensuring consumer choice for internet service providers, offering greater transparency on how data is collected online, and notifying consumers in a timely manner when personal data has been accessed via hacks. Perhaps most groundbreaking, however, is a provision requiring consumers to opt in before online companies can collect data about them. This is a big deal because many of the tech industry's largest companies, like Facebook and Google, have business models built on monetizing this personal data through advertising.
Khanna says something needs to be done to ensure consumers are protected.
"The internet age and digital revolution have changed Americans' way of life," Khanna said in a statement. "As our lives and the economy are more tied to the internet, it is essential to provide Americans with basic protections online."
Khanna's ideas aren't really new. Many lawmakers, consumer advocates and technologists have been pushing regulation encompassing some, if not all of these ideas for years. But previous efforts to pass laws offering such protections have failed. That could be changing, as Democrats and Republicans alike talk about regulating internet privacy. Events like the massive Equifax security breach, Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, and foreign interference in elections have grabbed the attention of the American public and lawmakers.
"The question is no longer whether we need a national law to protect consumers' privacy," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, in an op-ed last month. "The question is what shape that law should take."
Pressure is also building internationally and from state legislatures. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in May, is forcing companies like Google, Facebook and Apple to change data collection policies. US states like California are also passing new privacy laws to regulate how these companies collect and store customer data. Representatives from Google and Facebook have testified in front of Congress several times over the past year, and they're more willing today to work with federal lawmakers to come up with a set of uniform rules.
Khanna, who was asked to come up with the list six months ago by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, said he talked to several people in the the tech industry, including Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
"If the internet is to live up to its potential as a force for good in the world, we need safeguards that ensure fairness, openness and human dignity," Khanna said in a statement. "This bill of rights provides a set of principles that are about giving users more control of their online lives while creating a healthier internet economy."
While there may be momentum to pass some kind of regulation, it's unlikely that the Internet Bill of Rights, as written, would pass in the House, given that several of the items on the list are controversial. Take, for example, Khanna's suggestion to require opt-in consent for the collection of personal data and his net neutrality provision, which gives consumers the right to "access and use the internet without internet service providers blocking, throttling, engaging in paid prioritization or otherwise unfairly favoring content, applications, services or devices." They are likely to garner pushback from the internet and broadband industries, respectively.
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"We think passing tech/privacy legislation next year is an uphill battle," said Paul Gallant, an analyst with Cowan. "But if Democrats take the House, we believe mandatory opt-in for tracking/targeting will become a live issue for Facebook, Google and others in 2019."