Feb 13, 2019 - Technology

Government watchdog says it's time for privacy debate

An ad that says "What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone" next to a monorail that says "Hey Google"

Photo: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Government Accountability Office, which gives nonpartisan advice to Congress, said in a report released Wednesday that "this is an appropriate time for Congress to consider comprehensive internet privacy legislation."

Why it matters: The finding adds fuel to calls for a national privacy law, as state and foreign regulators crack down on data-hungry companies like Google and Facebook.

Details: Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee commissioned the GAO report in 2017 and released it Wednesday, after receiving it earlier this year.

  • "Comprehensive internet privacy legislation that establishes specific standards and includes traditional notice-and-comment rulemaking and broader civil penalty authority could enhance the federal government’s ability to protect consumer privacy," said the GAO's report.
  • The agency's staff interviewed people linked to Google, Facebook, Apple and other internet companies. They also talked to outside academics, internet service providers and advocates who argue for tougher privacy rules.
  • In their interviews, the agency staffers who worked on the report identified a split between many industry representatives who believed the current system worked fairly well, while outsiders said it needed to be modified to protect consumers.

The big picture: The release of the report coincides with a bigger push among lawmakers of both parties — including now-in-charge House Democrats — to craft a privacy agenda.

  • "From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the unauthorized disclosures of real-time location data, consumers’ privacy is being violated online and offline in alarming and dangerous ways,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone in a statement.
  • “This detailed GAO report makes clear now is the time for comprehensive congressional action on privacy that should include ensuring any agency that oversees consumer privacy has the tools to protect consumers," he said.
  • The committee also announced Wednesday it would hold a hearing later this month on privacy. Its Republican-controlled Senate counterpart will host its own hearing in February as well.

What's next: House Democrats have yet to coalesce around a single piece of privacy legislation or a group of bills.

Go deeper: Read the whole report

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