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Legislation May Be In The Works On Capitol Hill To Crack Down On Big Tech


There is growing appetite on Capitol Hill to crack down on big tech. Legislation may be in the works, and a hearing tomorrow will focus on what Google does with users' personal data. This, of course, follows case upon case of tech companies collecting and sharing this information in ways that critics say violates user privacy. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: For years, the big tech companies have been given a pretty free rein in Washington to act as they chose. What oversight of the industry there was by Congress focused on whether there was political bias on various platforms. But with Democrats now in the majority in the House, that's changing. Representative Jan Schakowsky is a Democrat from Illinois. She says self-regulation by the tech industry hasn't worked.

JAN SCHAKOWSKY: In the last two weeks alone, we learned that Facebook exposed individuals' private health information that the consumers thought was in a protected closed group and collected data from third party app developers on issues as personal as women's menstrual cycles and cancer treatment.

NAYLOR: Schakowsky says privacy is among the first tech issues lawmakers should address.

SCHAKOWSKY: We believe that there ought to be some legislation that sets the terms on privacy. And I think what consumers really want is transparency. They want to know what's actually being collected. They want some control, and then they want some accountability.

NAYLOR: There aren't many issues in Congress with bipartisan support these days, but the need for stricter privacy rules for tech companies is one. Republicans agree that it's time to put some limits on the big tech companies' use of people's data. Oregon Republican Greg Walden is the top GOP member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

GREG WALDEN: I've not met a single American who has ever fully read the fine print of some sort of agreement when you download an app or get an update. You know, you're going to update it. And you're going to push agree. And you're not reading the privacy policy of that company. And the question is, do they even follow their own privacy policies or are the privacy policies adequate?

NAYLOR: Walden, though, wants to make sure that whatever steps Congress takes to enact privacy regulations will supersede any measures enacted by the states. California has already approved its own strict privacy legislation.

Dave Grimaldi of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which represents Facebook, Amazon and Google, all of which are funders of NPR, says the tech industry is willing to go along with new privacy regulations. But he says the industry can't navigate 50 different laws, nor could consumers.

DAVE GRIMALDI: The Internet is global. It's most certainly national, goes over state lines. And I think that changing or altering the Internet experience state to state would be something that would be a giant turnoff to consumers and just wouldn't help anyone.

NAYLOR: The tech companies are facing a challenge on another front too - the Federal Trade Commission announced a task force to take a look at recent mergers. It's a step Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says is long overdue.

MARC ROTENBERG: I think they probably should have set up that task force more than a decade ago. That was around the time they were approving the mergers that allowed, for example, Google to acquire DoubleClick, the big Internet advertising firm, or Facebook to acquire WhatsApp, which was a competing messaging service. Those deals should have been subject to much more scrutiny than they were at the time.

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, House and Senate committees each have hearings set for tomorrow on the privacy issue. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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