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McMorris Rodgers promises congressional action on data privacy, ‘an issue that transcends party politics’

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, questions a witness during a hearing at the U.S. Capitol in March of this year.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The Spokane Republican who leads the House panel charged with internet regulations urged her colleagues during a hearing Wednesday to pass a bipartisan bill that would limit how tech companies collect and use Americans’ personal data.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers held the hearing to educate new members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and to keep up the momentum on the American Data Privacy Protection Act, a bipartisan compromise bill the panel’s members approved in July by a virtually unheard-of vote of 53-2. Despite that broad support, the legislation failed to advance further in the House or Senate, stymied by opposition from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and senators including Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell.

“Americans have no say over whether and where their personal data is sold and shared,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We have a shared goal here. We’re going to continue this work and we’re going to get it done in this Congress.”

The Spokane Republican and her Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, made it clear they intend to work together to pass the bill again in hopes it can move forward in the Senate. In another sign of the unusual bipartisanship that exists on the issue, all three witnesses in the hearing – an entrepreneur, a former government official and the head of an advocacy group – were united in calling for legislation they agreed is long overdue.

“We commend the committee’s focus on this issue early this session because it’s long past time for Congress to act,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that advocates for online rights.

She noted that Wednesday’s hearing was the 31st one the committee had conducted on consumer privacy in the past five years.

“Looking for information on your device can feel very private, but with every click and scroll, companies collect information about your activities, typically using, sharing or selling that information to make inferences about you or so you can be targeted with ads,” said Givens, laying out the fundamental problem the bill aims to solve by minimizing the data companies can collect and use.

Companies known as data brokers, she said, have been found to use that information to group people into categories such as “suffering seniors,” “rural and barely making it,” “ethnic second-city strugglers” and “consumers with clinical depression.” Those profiles can then be used to target vulnerable people with ads for things like predatory loans and medical scams.

Jessica Rich, who served as the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection chief until 2017, said her former agency also needs new enforcement authorities to crack down on data privacy violations. She said that without a federal data privacy law, the FTC, whose mission includes protecting Americans from exploitative business practices, still relies on “a general-purpose consumer protection law enacted long before the internet existed or was even thought about.”

“Today, the need for a federal privacy standard has never been greater, and there’s no substitute for congressional action here,” Rich said.

If Congress is to act, it will require the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate to agree on a compromise. Much of that work already has been done in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but Cantwell – who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee – will need to be persuaded to get behind a bipartisan bill.

In an interview after the hearing, McMorris Rodgers said data privacy is “an issue that transcends party politics,” but she also signaled her intent to revise the House bill now that she is in charge.

“We’re in the majority,” she said. “The bill from last year will be the base bill, but there will be some changes in light of the Republicans having the majority.”

McMorris Rodgers said she also is concerned about issues surrounding tech companies that don’t have the bipartisan support needed to become law – such as liability protections for tech companies and alleged bias against conservatives – but added that she intended to address those issues separately from data privacy legislation.

If those issues were rolled into the data privacy bill, that would likely end whatever chance it has of becoming law. But McMorris Rodgers said she was hopeful that she and Cantwell, two women representing Washington state, could come together to pass data privacy legislation during this session of Congress.

“You have the hometown players on what’s maybe the one bill that might pass this Congress,” she said. “Nothing like an idea whose time has come.”

Editor’s note: This story was revised to clarify that Rep. McMorris Rodgers said she intends to address data privacy separately from other issues, such as liability protections for tech companies and alleged bias against conservatives.