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Democrats divided over privacy law for Facebook, others

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A rift has opened between Democrats over a proposal to address consumer data privacy concerns — as a freshman congressman from Silicon Valley barrels ahead with the idea while some of his colleagues want him to slow down.

Why it matters: Democrats would have the power to move ahead with privacy legislation if they win the House in November — but only if they settle their internal fights first.

What we’re hearing: Some House Democrats are taking issue with Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna’s approach to creating an Internet Bill of Rights that could govern, among other issues, how platforms like Facebook and Google handle consumer data.

  • Khanna says he approached minority leader Nancy Pelosi with the idea on April 12 after consulting with several former Obama administration tech staffers. “She said, ‘Why don’t you run with it?’,” he told Axios in a phone conversation Thursday.
  • He told Axios he had already circulated the proposal to outsiders.
  • Pelosi also told him to meet with colleagues who care about these issues, he confirmed, including California Democrats Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, both major tech allies, and key Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over tech issues. That meeting took place April 13, according to Khanna’s office.
  • A second meeting, with just Eshoo and Lofgren, took place on April 16.

Then, things got more complicated. A House Democratic aide familiar with the discussions expressed frustration with how quickly proposed language, which the aide described as preliminary, circulated outside of Capitol Hill without the involvement of other lawmakers. Khanna also started to speak publicly about his effort in articles that came out shortly after the meetings with his colleagues.

  • The aide argued that perpetuating the idea that someone had been tapped by Pelosi to write a bill, or that the process was far along, wasn’t helpful.
  • Effectively, critics say Khanna is moving too fast. Circulating language early on can draw the attention of outside lobbyists, putting pressure on lawmakers.
  • And moving quickly runs counter to the slow processes of Congress, where Khanna will have to vet the legislation with powerful members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Because he doesn't serve on that panel, they're his only hope of turning his idea into law.

What Khanna’s saying: He says he'd sought input from outside experts before speaking with Pelosi and doesn't see a reason to stop circulating his proposal now that he's had conversations with colleagues.

  • “Their point is that once we have this draft that members are having an input in, I should just stop having external consultation,” Khanna said of his critics in a phone interview. “That’s absurd.”
  • He said in a follow-up email that he thought the criticism was indicative of the kind of lack of technical knowledge that was on display when lawmakers asked notably basic questions during last month’s Congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg.
  • “Some of the staff in particular is possessive of turf and want to guard their own control on the process. They are wrong,” he said. “Their closed process, with a lack of transparency and openness, is precisely why Congress has failed time and again to pass an Internet Bill of Rights. Their reliance on internal staff without consulting outside experts explains the knowledge gap.”

The bigger picture: As Europe's sweeping data protection laws take effect and consumer sensitivity to privacy concerns spikes after Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to be part of the privacy game.

  • Similar efforts have stalled in the past: The Obama White House had a proposal for a “Privacy Bill of Rights” that didn’t go anywhere. And an attempt to convene industry and advocates to develop privacy standards for emerging technology had mixed results.

What’s next? Khanna says he wants to release the core principles of his Bill of Rights plan before the August recess. Other privacy proposals may also crop up ahead of the midterms.