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‘Mind Your Own Business’ privacy bill introduced to US Senate

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A new data privacy bill has been introduced to the Senate, aiming to give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the power to issue massive fines when tech companies violate their users’ privacy, among other strict measures.

The bill was drafted by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who has established a reputation as a critic of the behaviour of tech giants. In a statement, Wyden said: “[Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg won’t take Americans’ privacy seriously unless he feels personal consequences. A slap on the wrist from the FTC won’t do the job.”

In July, Facebook and the FTC agreed to a $5bn fine following a years-long investigation into the company’s violations of user privacy; despite the size of the fine, critics argued that the settlement would not bring about any real change in Facebook’s behaviour. The investigation – the second major FTC investigation into Fakebook’s privacy practices – began after it was revealed that a political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, had harvested data from 87 million unwitting American users to build political advertising tools based on users’ psychological profiles. The scandal was one among many shredding the reputation of tech giants, leading lawmakers to question how these enormous companies can be held to account and forced to change their practices.

Wyden’s ‘Mind Your Own Business Act’ has much in common with the EU’s GDPR data privacy legislation, empowering the FTC to fine tech companies up to four per cent of their annual revenue for first-time offences. The bill would also introduce a nationwide ‘Do Not Track’ requirement, providing people the option to opt out of online data tracking used for ad targeting with “one click” and to see how their data is used and shared.

The bill would give the FTC more resources to regulate the tech industry, allow state attorneys-general to enforce regulations introduced in the bill, and would not prevent state legislatures from introducing their own privacy bills. It would also require major platforms like Facebook and Twitter to offer paid versions of their services which fully protect privacy, with the option for people on low incomes to use this version on the Federal Communication Commission’s ‘Lifeline’ program, to ensure that privacy is not treated as a “luxury good”. The price of this service could not exceed the amount of money the company would forfeit by applying strict privacy standards.

Notably, the bill would also make it a criminal offence for senior tech executives to lie to the FTC about privacy practices, introducing prison sentences of up to 20 years for the offence.

The Mind Your Own Business Act, which is based on a draft bill circulated towards the end of 2018, is likely to face a vast industry lobbying effort to water it down and is extremely unlikely to pass in its current form.

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