Biden urged to protect consumers’ online privacy

As Joe Biden was being sworn in as president of the United States, digital rights groups called on him and legislators to curb the power of technology firms and guard consumers’ online privacy.

Advocacy groups want Biden to ban facial recognition technology on his first day – which critics say can perpetuate discriminatory policing – and not to appoint individuals with extensive ties to big tech firms to his administration.

“We are very much looking forward to the opportunity president-elect has to lead the way on protecting privacy, and bring the tech companies abusing privacy practices to account,” Jane Chung, an advocate with consumer group Public Citizen, said on Wednesday.

“We need regulators that protect consumers, workers, and communities of colour against predatory surveillance and privacy malpractice – and represent the interests of the people, not corporations.”

Privacy concerns are mounting amid data breaches and public discomfort over how information is collected and used. US regulators have imposed hefty fines on Facebook Inc and Google Inc’s YouTube unit for privacy violations.

Public Citizen and 10 other US-based digital rights and racial justice groups also want the new administration to create an independent Data Protection Authority and back a federal privacy law during Biden’s first 100 days in office.

The US lacks a comprehensive digital privacy law, but both Democratic and Republican legislators proposed legislation in 2019 to protect consumers and ensure that companies collect the minimum amount of personal data needed for their purpose.

The state of California enacted a sweeping privacy law in 2018, often seen as a model for a possible federal framework, which Biden’s Chief of Staff, Bruce Reed, helped negotiate with the tech industry and legislators.

Before former US President Donald Trump left office on Wednesday, his outgoing antitrust chief called on Congress to pass legislation that would place new restrictions on mergers by dominant companies, echoing an earlier proposal made by Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Makan Delrahim, who is stepping down as head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said on Tuesday that the division has drafted legislation that would make it harder for big companies to acquire smaller firms that could pose future competitive threats.

“My goal is to create a bright-line rule for parties and for courts,” Delrahim said in a speech on Tuesday, referring to legislation that is considered by lawyers as being unambiguous. New merger legislation could “effectively combat the excessive market concentration,” he said.

Delrahim’s remarks represent support from a Republican administration official for a proposal made by House Democrats late last year. An antitrust panel investigating giant technology firms in October called for new legislation to curb acquisitions by dominant companies, particularly in the technology industry.

Antitrust enforcers have been criticised for allowing tech giants free rein to buy smaller companies as a way to solidify their control over digital markets.

Digital rights groups are scrutinising the personnel Biden is tapping for his work on technology issues, as antitrust enforcement has emerged as an issue the Biden transition team has been paying attention to.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) sued Alphabet’s Google on October 20, accusing the $1 trillion company of dominating search and advertising and the Federal Trade Commission is also pursuing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook.

‘Successful companies’

Google has broadly denied wrongdoing and said that its search engine and other products are dominant because consumers prefer them.

Facebook’s general counsel Jennifer Newstead has said antitrust laws do not exist to punish “successful companies” and that WhatsApp and Instagram have succeeded because Facebook invested billions of dollars in growing the apps.

Renata Hesse, who has had several stints at the Justice Department since 2002, held private sector roles and advised on matters involving Amazon and Google, is among the top contenders for the top antitrust job.

On Monday, 40 advocacy groups sent a letter sent to Biden, asking him to “avoid appointing to key antitrust enforcement positions individuals who have served as lawyers, lobbyists, or consultants for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google”.

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some privacy advocates see vigorous antitrust investigation as a key lever to promote greater digital privacy for consumers.

“We need people at DOJ … who will scrutinise the tech industry and push forward with various ongoing antitrust investigations and lawsuits,” said David Segal, head of Demand Progress, a digital rights group that signed Monday’s letter.

“But recent reporting indicates that people with close ties to the industry are under serious consideration for key posts.”

Global effort

Other jurisdictions are also tightening their regulatory grip on large technology firms.

Google is back in the European Union’s crosshairs, just two years after antitrust regulators wrapped up nearly a decade of investigations with $9bn in fines.

This time around the European Commission is looking into Google’s practices in the “advertising technology value chain,” according to a questionnaire sent to publishers and advertising firms seen by Bloomberg, the news agency reported this week.

It says officials are homing in on how the US giant interacts with advertisers, publishers, advertising tech firms and rivals.

Regulators are also running a separate investigation that cites EU concerns over how “Google is collecting, accessing, processing, using or monetising data” gathered from tracking the way people behave online, the document says.

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