Public Citizen News / July-August 2019
By David Rosen
This article appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
This year, Public Citizen has joined the fight to break up big tech companies and protect consumers’ online privacy and civil rights – which increasingly are in danger due to intrusive commercial surveillance and algorithms that are setting back decades of civil rights progress.
Tech giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google are harvesting personal and intimate details of consumers’ lives for profit. Privacy laws in the U.S. are decades out of date, leaving space for The battle for effective privacy protections also is a battle for civil rights protections online.
For example, in March, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleged that Facebook’s targeted advertising violates the Fair Housing Act by restricting who can see housing advertisements. Facial recognition software is another piece of technology that is capable of actively discriminating against people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ folks and low-income communities.
Consistently among the biggest political spenders in Washington, D.C., big tech companies have hired an army of lobbyists to persuade Congress and the Trump administration to develop a federal privacy framework.
But their newfound enthusiasm for federal privacy legislation is a red herring, says Burcu Kilic, Public Citizen’s digital rights program director. “Big Tech’s sudden support for a federal law after aggressively lobbying against it for years is an attempt to stymie efforts to break them up, wipe out state privacy protections and rig the privacy rules on their own terms,” she said. “If they get their way, it will create an illusion that the privacy and digital rights of American consumers are protected. However, in practice, the federal law the companies support would not require them to change their business model based on surveillance capitalism.”
The big tech companies fund many of the nonprofits working on these issues, and many of those groups are pushing for ambiguous policies that do little more than put a fig leaf over abusive industry practices. Public Citizen, which does not take corporate money, is fighting for a more progressive approach: one that puts consumer and civil rights at the heart of all privacy and digital rights discussions and gives consumers a voice.
Here’s what Public Citizen is fighting for:
- The break-up of tech giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google, which have become too big to manage, too dangerous to consumers and too powerful to continue to exist. Antitrust enforcement against these companies is necessary but woefully insufficient to protect our privacy and civil rights online;
- A federal online privacy and civil rights law that functions as a floor, not a ceiling, for protections. Public Citizen and its allies will oppose any new law that preempts state protections, which would wipe out existing laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act and block future state laws. All 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have laws on the books that safeguard online privacy and security – such as data breach notification requirements, identity theft protections, electronic health record protections, data disposal rules and data protections for schoolchildren;
- Baseline privacy protections that include a private right of action allowing individual consumers to enforce their rights by taking tech companies to court; strict limits on corporate and government data collection, processing and sharing; and a prohibition on take-it-or-leave-it terms of service. People cannot have meaningful control over their personal data if terms of service require waiving privacy rights;
- Disclosure of algorithms and automated processes that affect people’s lives. Algorithms are being used to determine eligibility for benefits, jobs, housing, credit, insurance and other life necessities. Transparency is essential to correcting for biases and disparate, discriminatory impacts inherent in these systems; and
- A new federal data protection agency that can aggressively police abusive data practices and put a stop to them. Even with 10 times its current staff and funding, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still would lack the resources it needs to protect our data and desire to take a meaningful action. And as a recent Public Citizen report showed, more than 75% of top FTC officials have conflicts of interest tied to the tech industry.
In the months ahead, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) – the leading congressional champion for online privacy and civil rights – will be working on legislation with the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee to address many of these issues, drafted in collaboration with likeminded congressional offices, Public Citizen’s policy experts and close allies.
Schakowsky spoke at two events Public Citizen helped organized in June: a transatlantic forum on the need for digital privacy protections and a Capitol Hill briefing on the discriminatory impacts of abusive data practices and the importance of safeguarding digital civil rights. U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a civil rights leader and chair of the Multicultural Media Caucus, dedicated to eliminating stereotypes in the media and expanding ownership to include communities of color, also spoke at the briefing.
Public Citizen and its allies will continue to educate members of Congress, the media and the public about the need for robust privacy and digital rights protections. Our digital rights movement is just getting started, says Kilic. Right now it is important to capitalize on the opportunity and achieve much-needed reforms, but the movement must not stop there. Advancing and sustaining digital rights will require ongoing action and vigilance. and everyone must be ready to be part of this fight.