Senate Democrats Unveil Strong Online Privacy Rights

November 26, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C—Today U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and fellow senior members Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Ed Markey (D-MA) unveiled comprehensive federal online privacy legislation to establish privacy rights, outlaw harmful and deceptive practices, and improve data security safeguards for the record number of American consumers who now shop or conduct business online.

With new numbers showing that nearly sixty percent of all holiday spending will be done online—making this the largest online holiday shopping season ever —families everywhere want strong action taken to protect their online privacy and data security. Says former Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and Georgetown Law Professor David Vladeck: “The bill not only codifies privacy as a right a measure long overdue but it also recognizes that ‘rights’ that are unenforceable are empty gestures. For that reason, the bill not only restores control of personal information to consumers, but equally important, the bill gives consumers and the Federal Trade Commission real tools to hold companies accountable when they collect information without permission, when they fail to reasonably safeguard consumers' information, or when they misuse that information.”

The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA) gives Americans control over their personal data; prohibits companies from using consumers’ data to harm or deceive them; establishes strict standards for the collection, use, sharing, and protection of consumer data; protects civil rights; and penalizes companies that fail to meet data protection standards. The legislation also codifies the rights of individuals to pursue claims against entities that violate their data privacy rights

“In the growing online world, consumers deserve two things: privacy rights and a strong law to enforce them,” Ranking Member Cantwell said. “They should be like your Miranda rightsclear as a bell as to what they are and what constitutes a violation.”

“When consumers let companies use their personal information they should be able to trust that it will be protected and won’t be used to harm them,” said Senator Schatz.  “Our bill lays out a set of strong data privacy rights for consumers, establishes robust obligations for companies, and gives prosecutors and consumers the tools they need to hold big tech companies accountable.”

“Companies continue to profit off of the personal data they collect from Americans, but they leave consumers completely in the dark about how their personal information is being used. Consumers have a right to know if their personal data is being sold and to easily see what data has already been distributed,” said Senator Klobuchar. “Our legislation establishes digital rules of the road for companies, ensures that consumers have the right to access and control how their personal data is being used, and gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general the tools they need to hold big tech companies accountable. It’s time for Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation.”

“The demand for consumers’ personal information today is at an all-time high,” Senator Markey said. “But while the appetite for our data has skyrocketed in recent years, Americans have not yet been given a set of strong, enforceable rights that protect us from privacy invasions. This bill gives consumers strong privacy protections, including prohibitions on harmful discriminatory uses of our data and strict data security requirements. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee to enact a comprehensive federal privacy bill, which must include heightened protections for vulnerable populations, like children and teens.”

This bill tackles teen privacy with new safeguards, recognizing the need to do more to protect children and young people’s online privacy—a challenge that Senator Markey has been working hard to address and that should be included in comprehensive privacy legislation.

The full text of the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA) can be found HERE.

A one-pager on the legislation can be found HERE.

The just-released Commerce Committee report titled The State of Online Privacy and Data Security can be found HERE.

Consumer and civil rights advocates and privacy experts support the legislation

Georgetown University Law Center Professor David Vladeck“This bill marks an important step forward for Congress. The bill gives consumers the right to regain control of their personal information —whether it is collected, and how it may be used.  The bill not only codifies privacy as a right —a measure long overdue —but it also recognizes that ‘rights’ that are unenforceable are empty gestures. For that reason, the bill not only restores control of personal information to consumers, but equally important, the bill gives consumers and the Federal Trade Commission real tools to hold companies accountable when they collect information without permission, when they fail to reasonably safeguard consumers' information, or when they misuse that information. And the bill is careful to recognize that federal law can coexist with state privacy laws.  Kudos to the bill's sponsors for their willingness to take on the internet giants, put the brakes on the indiscriminate and ubiquitous data collection and  restore the ability of consumers to control their personal data.” 

Justin Brookman, Director of Privacy and Technology Policy at Consumer Reports“This is strong legislation that directly goes after companies that build secret profiles about what we do online and off. We appreciate the bill sponsors’ leadership on data privacy, and we look forward to working with Congress to finally pass legislation to protect our personal information. This bill is an important step toward treating privacy as a fundamental right for all Americans.”

University of Washington Law School Professor Ryan Calo: “This legislation represents a sea change, particularly in the way federal law thinks about privacy harm. As the bill makes abundantly clear, violating the privacy rights and expectations of consumers is harmful in and of itself, a harm that must be redressed by regulators and courts. Such a statement by Congress is sorely needed and will have a big impact on consumer privacy in America.”

Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology Executive Director Laura Moy: "For years, Americans have been clamoring for privacy—not just for incremental improvement, but for a transformative shift that will finally restore some sense of control to 21st century consumers. The Consumer Data Rights Act answers that call. It gives consumers meaningful rights and establishes robust enforcement mechanisms that will incentivize companies to comply. Just as important, this legislation directly addresses harmful uses of data, including discrimination. I applaud this bill and wholeheartedly hope to see it pass."

Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League: “African Americans and people of color are over indexed as consumers of traditional and social media. As such, our data are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, including civil liberties abuse, targeted disinformation campaigns designed to suppress the vote, and exclusion from employment, health, educational, and housing opportunities. I commend the bill sponsors for their leadership and on including important protections for civil and human rights in the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act. This legislation is an important first step. In the 21st century, privacy legislation must ensure data cannot be used in ways to undermine hard-fought civil rights. We look forward to working with House and Senate leadership on comprehensive data privacy rights legislation.”

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: “In today’s online economy, we have seen how the misuse of personal data can exacerbate discrimination in housing, employment, credit, and education. The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act prioritizes civil rights by ensuring that individuals’ personal data cannot be used for discriminatory purposes and that big data algorithms are assessed for bias.”

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Policy Director Caitriona Fitzgerald: “The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA) is outstanding. The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act gives consumers meaningful rights, holds companies accountable, and protects stronger state safeguards. EPIC reviewed the bills pending in Congress and has now given the Consumer Data Rights Act an A-. With the addition of a data protection agency, the bill would earn an A and establish a comprehensive approach for privacy protection for the U.S.” 

Federal Consumer Programs U.S. PIRG (and WashPIRG) Senior Director Edmund Mierzwinski“This strong privacy bill implements, among others, several principles any federal privacy bill must start with and then build onto. First, it grants consumers strong, enforceable rights against all privacy harms, explicitly including a violation of the act's provisions. Second, it preserves stronger state laws and the right of the states to innovate.”

Mr. Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy: “Research demonstrates that African Americans use social media at a disproportionately high rate; thus the NAACP is deeply appreciative of efforts to preserve the privacy of our data and to stop disinformation campaigns which may suppress and / or diffuse our voting power or limit our health, education, and employment opportunities to name a few.  We look forward to working with the Ranking Member and the other sponsors of this important legislation whose intent is to protect our civil rights and civil liberties, and to protect our most basic personal information.”

Ranking Member Cantwell has long been a leading advocate for online protections for American consumers. As Congress has worked to develop privacy legislation, she has repeatedly called for comprehensive privacy protections. She has led the fight to protect and restore net neutrality rules to keep a free and open internet. She has also championed the importance of investing in cybersecurity measures throughout the U.S. economy and pushed federal agencies like the FTC to take a more robust role in protecting Americans from privacy threats.