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The prospect of a U.S. privacy law seems to be stronger now than ever. Members of both sides of the aisle in Congress have recognized a void needs to be filled and have responded by proposing bills to bring one set of standards to the country.

Partisan debate continues around private right of action and state preemption, but it now seems as though it's not a matter of "if" a federal law will be passed but "when."

Negotiations and hearings are taking place on Capitol Hill, but for Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., the tempo is not nearly fast enough, and she believes now is the time for Congress to make a federal bill a top priority.

"I think people understand that it’s important, but I still don’t think, at least in Congress, there’s a sense of urgency that things have to move right away, and I think that’s extremely concerning," DelBene said during the 2020 IAB Policy Summit.

DelBene said the slow movement on federal privacy rules comes down to a lack of deeper congressional attention. Lawmakers understand the basic issues around privacy, DelBene said, but the concern lies with how they will commit to solving the problem.

By placing an emphasis on making federal legislation a reality, DelBene believes her fellow lawmakers will likely take a stronger stance if they know it will be time well spent.

"One of the biggest things is for folks to understand what a big priority it is, because, in the absence of feeling a sense of priority, no one wants to invest the time or take a position that might be controversial one way or another if they don’t think something is going to get done," DelBene said.

The Washington congresswoman also touched on avoiding a patchwork of 50 different state privacy laws. She doesn't believe a patchwork approach will work in the U.S., given her past experience in the startup and small business space. DelBene said she knows how challenging it would be for growing companies to take on a slate of different privacy requirements.

Not only will small businesses and U.S. citizens be affected by a patchwork of laws, but it would also be challenging for global organizations to conduct business with American companies, as well, she argued.

"People have to know across the country that they are OK," DelBene said. "These are also international issues, because many people are using these products and services. State by state, we have to look at how we are going to address this internationally because if we have 50 different state laws, then it’s unclear what our policy is when we are working with the EU and others. They came together on consistent policy, and I think it’s going to be very important for us to, as well."

This is an issue DelBene feels her congressional colleagues have yet to fully grasp. Every day the U.S. fails to take action on national standards is another day it falls behind the rest of the world and thus loses its influence on the global stage.

"How do we have a seat internationally on these issues if we don’t have a domestic policy? We saw the (Court of Justice of the European Union) strike down the (EU-U.S.) Privacy Shield," DelBene said. "What does that mean in terms of how we move forward? If we don’t have domestic standards, how do we lead that conversation? We are basically letting others set that policy for us and create those international standards."

DelBene has done her part to advance the dialogue. Last year, she introduced the Information Transparency and Personal Data Control Act, a federal bill that would require companies to obtain consumer opt-in before using sensitive information and for them to produce privacy notices in plain English. The bill would also give rulemaking powers to the Federal Trade Commission.

The bill is one of several proposed by lawmakers, and it is unknown at the moment which one will make up the basis of a federal law. DelBene said it's important for lawmakers to put their bills forward. By having an actual bill to read, the goals of a privacy law are no longer nebulous and become more tangible.

"That’s why I put my bill out. We have to get really specific about what a bill is. We can’t just talk about how we need 'privacy protections,'" DelBene said. "I put mine out, and I think it’s a good, strong bill with a lot of feedback, but I think it’s important to say, 'This is how we have to move forward' versus talking about it at a high level and never getting to that next level of putting words on paper and putting policy in place."

There may be pressure to ensure the U.S. does not fall behind the rest of the world in privacy, but DelBene does not want everyone to forget about the citizens whose rights will be determined by federal rules.

DelBene said citizens have become far more aware of privacy in recent years, whether it's due to stories of data abuse or from laws such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation and the activity coming out of California.

The wide-eyed early days of technology and the internet have passed. Trust is at an all-time low, which is another reason why DelBene thinks it is the right time for Congress to get to work on legislation and get everything back on track.

"People might have had that trust originally because everything was cool and new and it felt like we were breaking new ground. People now, understandably, have concerns that trust has been lost, so I think policy is important to make sure we have that trust," DelBene said. "But in the absence of any baseline policy that really says that we have requirements on what the consumer protections are, I think people will continue to be concerned."

Photo by Harold Mendoza on Unsplash


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