Ron Wyden Wants to Protect Data From Big Tech, If Congress Lets Him

Sen. Ron Wyden is fed up with Big Tech companies getting slapped on the wrist for violating user privacy. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think his fellow congressmen feel the same way. Yet.

“My sense is we are one major privacy scandal away from finally getting the political support to move this legislation,” the Oregon Democrat said in an exclusive interview with Digital Trends.

The legislation he’s referring to is his latest bill: A cheekily-named piece of privacy legislation called the Mind Your Own Business Act. If passed, this bill would give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the authority to not only fine companies who mismanage user data, but also to personally punish company leaders (like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) for violating user privacy and lying about their actions.

This, he hopes, would be enough to scare Big Tech executives straight and force them to take user privacy seriously. “I hope that this will be the baseline protection for consumer privacy at the largest companies in America,” he said.

The only problem? His bill is stuck in Congress and probably won’t make moves until the rest of Capitol Hill sees online privacy as an issue worth fixing. And that might mean another Equifax- or Cambridge Analytica-level privacy scandal.

Fines aren’t enough

Earlier this year, Facebook was hit with a record-breaking $5 billion fine for allowing the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest detailed personal information about its users and for lying to users about how facial-recognition software was being used. The hope was that such a massive fine would dissuade the company from mismanaging user data in the future.

Unfortunately, it hardly even made a dent in Facebook’s bottom line. In fact, the value of its stock actually increased after the FTC levied the fine, and the company still posted record profits for that quarter.

facebook was always too busy selling ads to care about your data cambridge analytica breach
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

To Wyden, the message is clear: Fines alone aren’t enough to stop Big Tech companies like Facebook from abusing user data. What we need, he said, is “personal consequences, financial penalties, and the prospect of prison time.”

Punishing tech titans after they’ve done wrong isn’t the sole focus of this bill, though. The Mind Your Own Business Act also includes a few other provisions aimed at not only discouraging Big Tech companies from misusing user data, but also forcing them to be more transparent about how they collect data, and even giving users the option to opt out of that collection in the first place.

“I think it is critically important,” said Wyden, “that those who use the services of these leviathans, these big social media platforms, have the option for what we call ‘Do Not Track,’ so that, for example, they can know that they aren’t being tracked, and that people aren’t selling their data.”

It’s unclear at this point exactly what this Do Not Track system would look like in practice, but Wyden envisions it as being super-simple, and capable of being activated with just a few clicks.

Implementing such a system is easier said than done, though. In the past, opponents of Do Not Track efforts have claimed that they prevent companies that offer “free” services (like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) from leveraging user data to sell ads — the very foundation of their business.

For this reason, the Mind Your Own Business Act includes a clever provision designed to stop that argument in its tracks. The proposed bill would allow companies to charge users a small fee if they opt to use the Do Not Track version of a given service — but that fee “shall not be greater than the amount of monetary gain [the company] would have earned had the average consumer not opted out.” While it’s unclear exactly how that amount will be calculated, Facebook’s most recent earnings report shows that its average revenue per user (a metric that’s calculated with oversight from the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC) is currently around $34 in the U.S. and Canada.

Wyden took extra steps to ensure that this fee-based system doesn’t transform online privacy into a luxury that only economically advantaged users can enjoy. “We worked out a special arrangement for low-income folks,” he said “I think we struck a good balance in terms of being fair to all parties, while at the same time taking a very bold step to put users in control of their data.”

The long road ahead

This bill still has quite a few hurdles to clear it before it becomes a law. The Mind Your Own Business Act was formally introduced to Congress on October 15, and is currently awaiting committee approval from the Senate Committee on Finance, so there isn’t a clear timeline for its progression quite yet. Not to mention, if/when it does progress, it will almost certainly face pushback from Big Tech and its formidable lobbying powers.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden speaks in Washington, D.C.
Senator Ron Wyden Getty Images / Zach Gibson

“The last thing they would want” Wyden said, “is a new focus, for example, on personal consequences for executives and the option for people to have a do-not-track arrangement. I certainly think Facebook will oppose the idea that Mark Zuckerberg would face personal consequences for the kind of behavior he is engaged in repetitively.”

Still, regardless of the opposition this bill might face as it makes its way through Congress, Wyden seems confident that public support for this kind of privacy legislation is on the rise, and will eventually be too strong for lawmakers to ignore.  He just thinks things will likely get worse before they get better.

“What I think we’ve seen in the past is that political change doesn’t start in Washington, D.C., and then trickle down. It’s almost always bottoms up.”

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