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Sep 26, 2018

Amazon latest tech giant to back federal privacy safeguards

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Facing growing pressure to protect their customers’ privacy, some off the biggest technology companies told Congress that they favor new consumer safeguards but warn against costly compliance requirements.

Andrew DeVore, Inc.’s (AMZN.O) associate general counsel, said in testimony prepared for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday that the company wants to make sure any regulations actually accomplish the goal of enhancing privacy without adding unnecessary requirements.

He warned of the “unintended consequences” of legislation enacted too quickly without careful consideration of overly broad language, such as the definition of “personal information.”

Also scheduled to testify are representatives from Alphabet Inc.’s (GOOGL.O) Google and Apple Inc. (AAPL.O), among others. The hearing comes as tech companies face intense scrutiny in Washington on an array of subjects including privacy. The issue has gained momentum, and even some lawmakers who are typically skeptical of regulation are trying to legislate.

“Perhaps for the first time, there is widespread agreement among industry, policy makers and many consumer groups of the need for a new and comprehensive federal privacy law,” said Leonard Cali, AT&T Inc.’s (T.N) senior vice president of global public policy, in his prepared remarks. “Now is the time for decisive congressional leadership to establish a thoughtful and balanced national privacy framework.”

AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ.N), the nation’s biggest phone companies, have publicly urged lawmakers to draw up one set of national consumer privacy rules. The carriers, which have operations in every state, fear that a lack of comprehensive legislation will create inconsistent rules across the country.

“We believe that customers should have choices and control about how their information is used by AT&T and shared with other companies,” Cali said according to his written testimony. “This includes opting in or out of some programs, setting privacy preferences, and unsubscribing from marketing emails and letters.”

Bud Tribble, an Apple vice president that leads Apple’s privacy software engineering team, said in prepared remarks that privacy means allowing users to control how their information is used, if it is shared, who it is shared with, and why.

“When we do collect personal information, we are specific and transparent about how it will be used. We do not combine it into a single large customer profile across all of our services,” Tribble said. “We strive to give the user meaningful choice and control over what information is collected and used.”

Earlier this year, Apple added messages to its core applications explaining how personal data would be used for specific functions. In March, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook called for “well-crafted” privacy regulations in light of Facebook Inc.’s (FB.O) Cambridge Analytica scandal that set off an industry wide privacy conversation.

The companies are already facing tough new European privacy rules that went into effect in May, while California passed a strict data privacy law in June. While the European rules had long been in development, many of the calls for tougher U.S. regulation of privacy online grew out of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a data firm obtained the data of millions of the social media sites’ users without their consent.

In response to the growing chance of regulation, several industry groups have suggested principles they’d like to see. They often focus on giving consumers more insight into and control over how their data is collected and used, while creating a national approach that would preempt state laws like California’s. Google released principles on Monday as it named Keith Enright, who is testifying at the hearing, its first chief privacy officer.

Consumer advocates agree with many of the principles, but are likely to want to make sure they cover a range of business practices. Many have said they would also want to defend strict state laws and ensure robust enforcement that considers a wide array of possible harms. Telecom companies and software and hardware makers have often split from internet companies on privacy as well, and non-tech companies such as banks, retailers and automakers have their own policy priorities.

Partisan Congress

The path for any legislation would also depend on the partisan composition of Congress, among other unknowns. But many lawmakers have suggested the time has come to begin the process.

The panel’s Republican chairman, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, said the developments of the last year “have all combined to put the issue of consumer data privacy squarely on Congress’ doorstep.”

Thune said he believed there was a strong desire by both Republicans and Democrats and industry for a national law.

The panel’s top Democrat, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, said that “consumers are worried: Do they have any privacy anymore?”

Privacy is not the only issue on lawmakers’ minds. Trump and some Republicans have also ramped up their rhetoric against the companies for allegedly censoring conservative voices in searches and news, and the White House is said to have considered a draft order that would instruct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open probes into the practices of technology companies.

At a meeting Tuesday between state attorneys general with the Justice Department, talks “principally focused on consumer protection and data privacy issues, and the bipartisan group of attendees sought to identify areas of consensus,” the department said in a statement.