Since long before the internet became a facet of everyday life, Americans have insisted on privacy protections for their personal information. And now that our digital and real-world lives have merged, rules for consumer data privacy in the online world are essential.
Americans may not understand the nitty-gritty of internet governance, but they know what they expect from their online experience. A recent poll commissioned by the Internet Innovation Alliance showed that 72% of Americans support a single nationwide data privacy law for the protection of internet users.
It’s no wonder that — in the absence of congressional action — state lawmakers are rushing to approve laws aimed at protecting their constituents’ internet privacy. But while their hearts are in the right place, reliance on a state-by-state approach will cause serious problems and sow consumer confusion. Fortunately, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, recognize this reality and have been working to structure federal legislation that will protect the privacy of all internet-using Americans, while cutting the chaos that would be created by a patchwork of state privacy laws.
More states have approved or are in the process of approving new laws that attempt to insulate constituents from the worst privacy abusers. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is now scheduled to take effect in 2020. Maine and Nevada passed their own privacy laws, but they differ from California’s. Washington state and New York also are considering privacy laws of their own, but those proposals differ from the laws approved in California, Maine and Nevada. And Washington’s proposal differs from New York’s.
While state attempts to strengthen our privacy protections are commendable, they will have severe unintended consequences. Internet services are offered on a national basis. Thus, state boundaries are meaningless. Fifty different and potentially contradictory state privacy requirements can’t help but frustrate consumers and pose major implementation challenges for providers such as Google and Amazon offering their services on a national basis.
Take the example of a smartphone user who lives in one state, travels to another state and accesses an e-commerce site headquartered in a third state. The service provider for that customer is headquartered in a fourth state and uses a server datacenter in a fifth state. Whose privacy law applies? Instead of offering assurances to consumers that their privacy will be protected wherever, whenever and however they access the internet, consumer doubt will reign, and companies may literally find it impossible to comply with contradictory provisions of various state laws.
Consumers need a straightforward, understandable federal law that guarantees a constant level of protection. And companies that deliver digital content, as well as internet service providers, need the certainty of a single national standard, too. The only legislative body that can enact that standard is Congress. For the sake of consistency nationwide and clarity among consumers, it’s also important for federal law to preempt state rules that are inconsistent with the national requirement.
Sens. Cantwell and Wicker, who are at the helm of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over consumer internet privacy, are right to tackle the issue together as a bipartisan team and will consider data privacy proposals at a hearing next month. Their leadership on the issue is needed at a time when broadband is an everyday necessity and new data privacy abuses are too frequent an occurrence.
Technology is normally several steps ahead of our nation’s laws, but on internet privacy, Cantwell and Wicker can help us catch up. In Congress, as with the American public, a broad consensus exists that the time is ripe for the enactment of federal consumer data privacy protections. A number of privacy protection bills have been introduced in both houses, but all eyes have now turned to Cantwell and Wicker with the expectation that they will soon come forward with a bipartisan bill that can attract broad support in both the House and the Senate. At last, resolution to the internet privacy debate is within reach.