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Tech giants ask Congress for a data privacy bill to bypass state laws

More than 50 CEOs of companies including Amazon, Comcast and Qualcomm signed a letter to Congress calling for a data privacy law.

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Tech giants are asking for Congress to pass a data privacy bill that would pre-empt state laws.

Matt Anderson Photography / Getty Images

Tech giants are calling on Congress to pass a data privacy law -- just as long as it's on their terms. Those terms include legislation that would pre-empt the many state laws already protecting people's privacy. But consumer privacy advocates argued this move would hurt data privacy. 

In a letter signed by more than 50 CEOs, including Amazon's Jeff Bezos and AT&T's Randall Stephenson, the industry leaders called for federal privacy legislation that would "strengthen consumer trust and establish a stable policy environment." 

The letter came from the CEO group Business Roundtable, and was sent Tuesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. 

The call for a data privacy bill has been ringing on Capitol Hill for years, as Americans have become more aware of how often they're being tracked online. Several members of Congress have proposed their own legislation, though none has gained enough traction to come to a vote. While Congress hesitates on a nationwide privacy bill, multiple states have passed their own data privacy laws, including California, Illinois, Vermont and New York.

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Tech companies have attempted to influence the federal privacy bill, with the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon spending more than $65 million to lobby Congress in 2018. The core of what tech giants want is a federal privacy law that would overwrite all the state laws that have already been passed.

The companies believe that a federal law would set a standard, while multiple state laws would cause an imbalance in data privacy across states. The Business Roundtable letter sent on Tuesday echoed that argument. 

"Now is the time for Congress to act and ensure that consumers are not faced with confusion about their rights and protections based on a patchwork of inconsistent state laws," the letter stated. Other companies whose CEOs signed the letter include Comcast, Dell, Ford, General Motors, IBM, Mastercard, Qualcomm, Salesforce and Visa.

Google and Facebook aren't part of the Business Roundtable, but they have made the same points in congressional hearings on data privacy.

Privacy advocates have warned Congress that a federal law that pre-empts state laws would hurt data privacy in the long term. Historically, state legislators have been faster at keeping up with tech's rapid advances.

After Equifax's breach in 2017, Vermont passed a breach notification bill the next year. On the federal side, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Mark Warner proposed a bill to fine companies like Equifax over breaches -- and more than a year later, it's made no progress. 

While a federal data privacy bill had momentum following the 2018 midterm elections, it's not expected that Congress will take action by the end of this year.