Q & A: Data Privacy
With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: Why did you call a congressional hearing to examine data privacy?
A: Social media has reinvented the way Americans share and digest news and information. As an early adopter of Twitter, for example, I embraced its efficiency to communicate a message, unfiltered, to a broad audience. Technology giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, have reengineered the economic, social and cultural landscape by transforming, innovating and disrupting the way things are done. Driving along what once was dubbed the information superhighway, entrepreneurs accelerated ideas, products and services across various platforms, reaching deeply into the personal lives of everyday Americans. Left largely untethered by government regulation, the pioneering men and women of the digital frontier face serious questions about their approach to privacy. Facebook is caught in the cross-hairs of the unfolding investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Recent revelations have exposed a potentially significant breach of privacy and misuse of data for 50 million account holders. But Facebook certainly isn’t the only company that harvests large amounts of data from its users. Google, Twitter and others also collect information, often to sell it to advertisers. Greater transparency can help consumers better understand how their personal information is being collected, used and protected. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have scheduled an April 10 hearing to examine the future of data privacy in the social media industry and discuss a better path forward. I’ve invited the chief executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter to participate and answer directly to the American people. The tech industry has an obligation to respond to widespread and growing concerns that data was misused or mishandled. That way, we will be able to identify what needs to be done to strengthen standards to protect privacy and restore the public trust.
Q: What’s at stake?
A: As a matter of public policy, personal data involves legal questions about who should be able to control information about an individual. From an economic standpoint, the technology sector drives prosperity from Wall Street to Main Street. Big Tech wields growing influence in the global economy. Investors, workers and pensioners are stakeholders. On the other side of the road, we have hundreds of millions of consumers who have every right to be concerned about the business practices that impact their personal information. In addition to congressional inquiries, a bipartisan coalition of 37 state attorneys general is seeking answers. What’s more, the Federal Trade Commission is looking into Facebook’s policies and practices. If the tech giants allowed, facilitated and profited from the harvesting of personal data at the expense of consumer privacy, we need a conversation to educate and empower consumers, improve rules of the road and step up enforcement. Consumers have a right to fundamental privacy protection. I’m working to get the facts out on the table so we can make informed decisions. Throughout my years of legislative and oversight work, I’ve always applied the Hippocratic Oath to policymaking: First, do no harm. Whenever an individual downloads an app, uses a search engine, shares content with followers, clicks news articles, shops, or answers online surveys, the user is creating a digital footprint, unique to that individual. That trove of information should not be Silicon Valley’s treasure to exploit for profit, especially without providing transparency about practices and policies. Consumers ought to have clear information, not reams of gobbledygook, about policies and practices affecting the flow of their personal data. Navigating the digital age raises complex policy issues and society will benefit from public debate.