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When Silicon Valley endorses regulation, you have to wonder what’s going on

2018-09-28
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Silicon Valley is this generation’s Gold Rush. This is where bright young startups go to claim to strike their fortune and it has been allowed to run as a lawless equivalent to the Wild West that lay on the same land before it. The government gave the tech industry free reign to regulate itself, and the tech industry became richer while the technologies became more pervasive.

Wake-up call after wake-up call on how unethical this mercenary industry functions reached boiling point last year, so Congress has been holding hearings with tech giants with a mind to bring about some sort of regulation. At Wednesday’s Senate hearings on consumers’ data privacy, tech industry big wigs backed potential data privacy regulations.  The only problem, as many critics were quick to point out, is no measured experts to argue for the side of the consumer were even invited to the hearing.

Top representatives from Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Charter, Google and Twitter attended the Senate commerce committee. It’s a big step for Google who refused to show up for a similar hearing on foreign interference on elections on September 5. They didn’t do themselves any PR favors on that occasion, so this time chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, put a sharp suit on and looked involved. And why wouldn’t he? This law could be very beneficial to the big tech giants and not at all beneficial to their consumers.

Off the heels of GDPR which was introduced across the EU in May of this year, and California’s own version of the law, the US has been dabbling with the notion of federal data protection laws. The panel solely made up of major internet companies, all objected to some elements of GDPR and the California law, which doesn’t take effect until 2020 and applies only to California. However, with big tech having lived through GDPR for a whole four months, the idea of such a law creeping into any part of the US has them in a tizzy. For the first time ever they are seeking federal data privacy laws. Ones that would override state laws, and one that critics worry, the industry may get to write itself.

Since the early 2000s the US government has mulled over introducing data regulation laws. In 2012 “the consumer privacy bill of rights” was formulated, but it never saw the light of day.  The page containing that document was removed from the White House website hours after Trump took office. Then in April of this year, Trump signed a bill into law that allows internet providers to sell information about customers’ browsing habits.  

A consumer group called Public Knowledge says there are several examples of this data being used to profile consumers and stop them seeing certain advertisements. African Americans not been shown housing ads, job ads being hidden from minorities and older people.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation say the timing of big tech’s interest in data regulation is no coincidence. Recently leading industry groups (the Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Association) came out in favor of federal preemption laws to fend off stronger state data privacy laws. “For example, laws in California and Illinois require companies to have user consent to certain uses of their personal information (Nevada and Minnesota have these requirements for Internet access providers), while the industry proposals would only require transparency. That means that companies would be allowed to collect information without your permission as long as they tell you they’re doing it. The upcoming hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee may be the launch pad for this strategy of undoing stronger state laws.

“We would look closely at a sensible federal legislation that offers meaningful protections for data privacy. Uniform laws offer predictability, making life easier for smaller companies, nonprofits and others that may struggle to meet the rules of different states. But a uniform law is only a good alternative if it’s actually a good law—not a weak placeholder designed only to block something stronger.”

With the Trump White House saying in the summer that its administration is working on meeting with companies and other interested parties to “appropriate balance between privacy and prosperity,” you have to wonder which side the balance is tipped.