Senate Bill Aims at Tech Giant Accountability

June 25, 2019 Updated: June 25, 2019

WASHINGTON—Facebook, Google, and other big Silicon Valley digital firms would have to disclose the value of their customers’ personal data if a proposal introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) becomes law.

The Warner-Hawley proposal—the Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data (DASHBOARD) Act—is the latest development in a growing movement in Congress to require more transparency and accountability of the most powerful internet and social media players.

The DASHBOARD proposal “will require data harvesting companies such as social media platforms to tell consumers and financial regulators exactly what data they are collecting from consumers, and how it is being leveraged by the platform for profit,” the senators said in a statement on June 24.

The proposal includes provisions that:

  • Require commercial data operators (defined as services with more than 100 million monthly active users) to disclose types of data collected, as well as regularly provide users with an assessment of the value of that data.
  • Require commercial data operators to file an annual report on the aggregate value of user data they’ve collected, as well as contracts with third parties involving data collection.
  • Require commercial data operators to allow users to delete all, or individual fields, of data collected—and disclose to users all the ways in which their data is being used. This includes uses not directly related to the online service for which the data was originally collected.
  • Empower the Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC) to develop methodologies for calculating data value, while encouraging the agency to facilitate flexibility to enable businesses to adopt methodologies that reflect the different uses, sectors, and business models.

The proposal is especially significant coming from Warner, who made a fortune in the cellular telephone and technology industry before being elected to the Senate in 2008 after serving a term as Virginia’s governor.

The DASHBOARD initiative is also significant as the second such team effort by Warner and Hawley, who make an unlikely pair in some respects. Warner, 65, is a moderate liberal Democrat who is nearing the end of his second term in the Senate and is favored to win a third one in 2020.

The 39-year-old Hawley is a populist conservative Republican elected in 2018 to his first Senate term. He was Missouri’s attorney general before entering the Senate.

Warner and Hawley previously collaborated on legislation called the “Do Not Track Act” that would create a database modeled on the FTC’s “Do Not Call” database.

“When a big tech company says its product is free, consumers are the ones being sold. These ‘free’ products track everything we do, so tech companies can sell our information to the highest bidder and use it to target us with creepy ads,” Hawley said in the statement.

“Even worse, tech companies do their best to hide how much consumer data is worth and to whom it is sold. This bipartisan legislation gives consumers control of their data and will show them how much these ‘free’ services actually cost,” Hawley added.

“Our bipartisan bill will allow consumers to understand the true value of the data they are providing to the platforms, which will encourage competition and allow antitrust enforcers to identify potentially anticompetitive practices,” Warner said.

Tech industry spokesmen were mostly cautious about the proposal, but not all of them. Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Vice President Daniel Castro, for example, issued a statement shortly after the DASHBOARD proposal became public.

“The premise of the DASHBOARD Act is that consumers are getting a rotten deal. Senators Warner and Hawley are arguing that consumers are giving up too much data in exchange for free services—and if consumers only knew the value of their data, they would have sticker shock and stop sharing so much personal information,” Castro said.

“But the premise is wrong. While data may have value, ‘paying’ for a service with data is not the same as paying with money. Unlike money, consumers do not have less data after sharing personal information, and they can share that same data with other services as well. On the contrary, for most commercial services, consumers always come out ahead by sharing data in exchange for a free service,” he continued.

The Internet Association, whose members include Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Intuit, among others, questioned the DASHBOARD proposal’s narrow application:

“The internet industry supports a comprehensive, economy-wide federal privacy law that covers all companies—from social media sites to local grocery stores to data brokers—to give consumers the protections and rights they need to take full control of the data they provide to companies.”

A spokesman for The Software Alliance didn’t respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.

Contact Mark Tapscott at mark.tapscott@epochtimes.nyc

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