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Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Political Theater Behind the Bipartisan Data Privacy Push

If you talk to US House Republicans, President Joe Biden delivered an offensive, hyperpartisan diatribe last evening. Hell, if you just listened to the State of the Union address, you’d have heard the commander-in-chief heckled as a “liar,” blamed for the opioid epidemic—“It’s your fault!”—or heard him met with a thunderous and sustained Republican “BOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Yet most all of those raucous Republicans—the ones who now control the gavels, televisions thermostats, and magnetometers throughout the US House of Representatives—couldn’t help but set aside their rowdy ways when Biden unleashed the full weight of his presidential bully pulpit on their common Silicon foe.

“We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit,” Biden said, as newly minted Speaker Kevin McCarthy, of California, and Vice President Kamala Harris rose to their feet in ovation. “And it’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us.”

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Data privacy—a bipartisan concern that’s historically devolved into partisan squabbling and inaction at the end of each congressional session—owned the night. But a popular line in a speech doesn’t mean the US will have a national privacy law anytime in the foreseeable future.

“You saw the people on both sides of the aisle stand up, so that’s a good sign,” says US senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat. “A lot of the data we’re seeing already, teenagers, preteens—it has a very, very negative impact on their self-esteem, their self-concept, and their well-being. So I think he is right, as the leader of our nation, to express and sound alarms of concern.”

Maintaining the status quo has only gotten harder in recent years—whether it’s conservatives concerned with “censorship” or liberals fearful of law enforcement in our new post-Roe v. Wade reality—and tech’s biggest critics at the Capitol were elated to hear they have such a powerful ally in the president.

“Oh yeah. It’s a big deal,” says Senator Tina Smith, Democrat from Minnesota. “How I interpreted that is: We don’t really fully know, or understand, the impact of social media on kids. The child psychologists and the experts that I talk to say there’s a lot of evidence that it’s so dangerous.”  

It was the one issue that cut through, if momentarily, during America’s annual ritual of allowing political theater to comingle with primetime TV.

“That’s one of the few good things he said,” says Senator Josh Hawley, Republican from Missouri.

Ahead of the State of the Union, Hawley stepped into the spotlight and announced a new legislative initiative aimed at protecting today’s screen-fueled youth, which he plans to formally introduce soon. Much like with driving, Hawley wants to set 16 as the age for children to join social media platforms, while also forcing Silicon Valley firms to verify all users’ ages. (Company policies typically set the minimum age at 13.) He’s also calling for the creation of a parental right to demand the deletion of their kids’ data. But Hawley, a former attorney general, knows it’s a tough road ahead for privacy hawks like himself.

“I hope that we can find some bipartisanship,” Hawley says.

Washington’s light on hope these days. Well, unless you’re one of the army of lobbyists that tech firms employ these days to storm, scare, or stall any legislative efforts aimed at Silicon Valley. (Sorry, TikTok, Beijing-based firms get no such love in the marble halls of the US Capitol.) 

While protecting American’s private data—especially kid’s data, which can include their text messages, keystrokes, and location—garnered bipartisan applause, Biden also weighed in on the stickier topic of US antitrust policy.  

“Pass bipartisan legislation to strengthen antitrust enforcement and prevent big online platforms from giving their own products an unfair advantage,” Biden implored the nation’s policymakers toward the middle of his more-than-hour-long address.

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While this Congress is now awake—not “woke,” by any stretch of the tired term—it’s also still largely in the dark, as lawmakers have had to rely on leaks to paint even a partial portrait of how social media firms mine and then target users using their own data. That’s why Democrats were excited to hear the president lay out such an aggressive tech agenda: They want to tilt the balance of knowledge, if not power, toward policymakers in Washington and away from the whims of Silicon Valley billionaires and wannabe billionaires alike. “He is concerned, as all of us are, about powerful monopolies that are doing an enormous amount of black box work. No one can see the internal workings—all we know is that the dangers to our children are growing daily,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat.

When it comes to antitrust and tech, there’s a trust deficit on Capitol Hill, even as pressure to act continues to mount. And Senate Democrats trust Speaker McCarthy to do one thing: protect American-made monopolies.

“I think the sentiment is there, but we’ve had a difficult time getting Republicans to support legislation in this area,” says Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat.

House Republicans may see common ground with Biden’s new tough-on-tech approach, but this is no kumbaya Congress—and the rest of Biden’s State of the Union vision, on first blush at least, has been portrayed by Republicans as a laundry list of reasons to never work with Biden, no matter their common tech foes. “What we saw tonight was Joe Biden talk about unity in one breath followed up with bashing and rolling Republicans,” says Republican congresswoman Kat Cammack of Florida. “That, to me, just shows he’s not serious about getting things done for the good of the American people.”

After dismissing the bulk of the president’s agenda, Cammack admits there was one bright spot. She calls Biden’s stern message to Silicon Valley “encouraging.”

“We have a really serious problem when it comes to our personal data being collected without warrants, being sold without our permission, and it’s time that we put people’s data and privacy back in their hands,” Cammack said. “So I was encouraged to hear that, but it’s a long road between now and then.”

Long road ahead, surely, but House members are only granted short, two-year windows of service, and the sprint to 2024 is already on. Pomp and circumstance was last night’s dress code, even if some got a different memo. But now the focus moves to legislating—and, especially on the eve of a presidential election, that means bomb-throwing and finger-pointing. 

Democrats and Republicans alike have failed to put up guard rails on the Silicon Valley donor class in recent years, even as both parties continue decrying the very tech sector Washington policymakers have refused to regulate, all while Americans’ data is mined, shared with law enforcement, or sold to other third parties. Hot air and deflated rhetoric aren’t options for this 118th Congress, according to Cammack.

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“Truth be told, I don’t think we have a choice,” Cammack says. 

“We have a divided Congress, and Republicans in the House are serious about data protection for consumers, for Americans, and I think Democrats are as well. The trick is going to be putting a bill together that not just survives Congress but will avoid a veto when it gets to his desk. So that’s going to be where the rubber meets the road.”

Tech politics are different than other hot-button issues. They’re at once bipartisan—everyone has a gripe or three with Big Tech—but they’re also stubbornly stuck in Washington’s rigid partisan patterns. That’s why soaring rhetoric only goes so far, even as the mistrust is seemingly endless. Hence, the details are often the devil.  

“These are tough conversations. We all value privacy. We all want to protect our children,” says Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, speaking for many of his fellow Republicans. “But we also like free enterprise. We like innovation. I always think it’s better to knock down barriers to competitors than it is to regulate the incumbents, so to speak, in business.”

Senators tend to be a little older than their House counterparts (according to Pew Research, 7.4 years older, on average). In recent years, the chamber’s octogenarians proved themselves the butt of Silicon Valley jokes, but times are changing—at Senate speed.

All five of the Republicans who captured Senate seats in November are bullish on Big Tech. While it’s unclear how quick—or successful—they’ll be in their efforts to educate their anti-regulation Republican elders, Silicon Valley’s congressional critics say Biden was wise to focus on protecting children’s private data. It’s a message that resonates far and wide, even on Speaker McCarthy’s Capitol Hill.

“But this issue of targeting our children with certain messages, using technology to basically gather data and persuade or take advantage of their habits, it’s really quite unnerving in this modern era,” Cramer says. “I think a lot of us traditionalists have to struggle a little bit with our basic individualism, with some protection.”

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