Work on privacy bill inches forward

Key lawmakers maintained Tuesday that they are making progress in their efforts to put together the country’s first comprehensive online privacy bill after hitting several bumps in Congress late last year.

At the tech-funded State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C., lawmakers on the relevant House and Senate committees signaled they are grappling with the same obstacles that resulted in Democrats and Republicans putting out separate versions of a privacy bill last year – but insisted they’re still dedicated to bipartisan negotiations.

“I’m continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get a bill that will get us across the finish line,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said during his keynote address.

Last year, Wicker and his Democratic counterpart on the committee, ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), offered dueling versions of legislation to create more privacy for Americans online. Cantwell’s legislation “was a pretty good bill,” Wicker said, but “any privacy bill will need bipartisan support to become law.”

Cantwell, alongside a group of committee Democrats, released a proposal in December that included several provisions seen as non-starters for Republicans. Cantwell’s bill would allow individuals to sue companies for violating their privacy rights, a provision called the “private right of action,” while Wicker’s bill would not allow individual people to sue.

Meanwhile, Wicker’s bill would override any state privacy laws, including the tough California law that went into effect in January, a provision that has been the target of Democratic skepticism.

“There’s always room for conciliation and compromise,” Wicker told reporters on Tuesday afternoon as he defended his bill. “Clearly, there’s going to have to be some give-and-take. I think everyone wants a good, strong protection for consumers.”

Meanwhile, the top Republican working on a comprehensive privacy bill in the House, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (Wash.), acknowledged “other efforts” to work up a privacy bill “have fallen apart this Congress.”

“But it needs to happen,” McMorris-Rodgers, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee focused on privacy, said during a discussion at the conference.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee in December unveiled a first draft of their bipartisan federal privacy bill, though they left several controversial issues off the table. They have solicited broad feedback on the staff-level draft over the past month.

The chairwoman of the consumer protection subcommittee, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), said they have received over 90 comments so far “and they’re still coming in.”

“A lot of people on all sides are really not happy,” Schakowsky said. “We’re in the process right now of processing all of that.”