Freshly-inaugurated President Joe Biden certainly has a lot on his plate as he begins his presidency. On top of trying to gain control of a still-raging pandemic, Biden’s key priorities for his first 100 days are aimed at addressing a slew of immigration, equality, foreign policy, employment, climate, and economic issues. Many consumer advocacy groups are hoping the new president also makes room on his agenda to address issues concerning online privacy as well. But considering Biden’s past track record regarding such issues, that may be easier said than done.
Reiterating the suggestions laid out in a November letter to Biden urging him to "reject the influence” of Big Tech in his administration and to "confront the threats posed by the monopolistic Big Tech companies that have exploited consumer privacy,” consumer advocacy groups like Public Citizen on Wednesday once again called for Biden to commit to taking action on digital privacy issues.
Jane Chung, an advocate with Public Citizen expressed enthusiasm for "the opportunity President-elect has to lead the way on protecting privacy and bring the tech companies abusing privacy practices to account,” and advocated for the need for "regulators that protect consumers, workers, and communities of color against predatory surveillance and privacy malpractice - and represent the interests of the people, not corporations.”
Essentially, consumer advocacy groups are calling on the Biden administration to facilitate the protection of digital privacy by holding Big Tech firms accountable for how they collect and process personal data, banning invasive surveillance technology like facial recognition, establishing an independent Data Protection Authority, and supporting the creation of a federal data privacy law.
The establishment of a national data privacy law is something Congress has been trying to accomplish for quite some time now, but lawmakers have thus far failed to produce anything of real consequence as a partisan divide has led to an impasse on several key issues surrounding how such a law should be implemented on the federal level. That Biden’s top tech advisor and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed played an instrumental role in breathing life into the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – widely regarded as a blueprint for federal legislation to follow – bodes favorably for the odds that the Biden administration can get something concrete on the table in terms of federal data privacy legislation in his first 100 days in office.
But considering reports from Reuters in November indicating that Biden’s transition team consisted of more tech executives than outspoken tech critics, privacy advocates’ hopes of the Biden administration achieving meaningful change in advancing data privacy protections for Americans may be dampened. And it’s not just that that has privacy advocates anxious about the future of data privacy under the Biden presidency. The president’s political track record concerning issues related to digital privacy hasn’t exactly been favorable for the strengthening of consumer privacy standards. If anything, it’s been problematic.
As far back as the early nineties, Biden has been active in making it easier for the federal government and law enforcement to conduct surveillance activities on civilians in the United States and limit ways in which to secure data. In 1991, as a Delaware senator, he introduced the Comprehensive Counter Terrorism Act that would have allowed federal government authorities to bypass encryption in electronic communications and "to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriately authorized by law.”
Similarly, in 1994, Biden introduced the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or "Digital Telephony Act”, that forced telecom service providers and manufacturers to design their products and services in a manner that allowed for surveillance by law enforcement. Soon thereafter, with internet-based communications becoming increasingly prevalent, the law was expanded to encompass broadband and VoIP communications as well.
More recently, Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign accepted major contributions from Big Tech PACs, including Alphabet Inc (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple – i.e. the very companies listed in Public Citizen’s November letter to Biden warning of Big Tech’s threats to data privacy. Additionally, Biden’s very first campaign fundraiser after announcing his 2020 campaign was hosted by David Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief lobbyist for telecoms giant Comcast, which happens to be the largest internet service provider in the United States.
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