Editorial: Shopping online? It’s time lawmakers join Cantwell’s efforts to protect your privacy

By:  Tri-City Herald Editorial Board
Source: The Tri-City Herald

Cyber Monday’s record $9 billion in online sales has come and gone, but consumer data from the major shopping day likely will be stored, shared and sold for months to come — with shoppers none the wiser.

People are forced to sacrifice privacy in order to have the convenience of ordering items with their phones and computers, but that trade-off can leave web users vulnerable.

In Washington state alone, data breaches increased by nearly 20 percent in 2019, according to the state Attorney General’s office.

This culling of personal information without consent is a major concern, and the upsetting practice needs reined in.

And while states across the country — including Washington — are working on ways to protect consumers online, a patchwork system is not the way to handle such a pervasive problem.

The country needs comprehensive, national data-privacy rules with teeth — and sharp ones at that.

A group of federal lawmakers, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are trying to make that happen.

Last week, they unveiled a comprehensive online privacy bill called the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act of 2019 (COPRA) and a hearing on the measure was held Dec. 4 in the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

It is a sweeping plan that gives people control over their personal data. It allows them to see what is being collected and how it is being used, and it also prevents personal information from being shared with third parties.

“We want to protect consumers’ privacy rights,” Cantwell said. “We believe to do that, you need strong enforcement and mechanisms to make sure that those rights are protected… If your privacy rights are violated, you need to be first able to find out about it, and then you need to have the power to do something about it as well.”

The proposal gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general tools so they can hold big tech companies accountable if they collect information without permission, if they fail to protect that information or if they misuse it.

While the federal measure lacks bipartisan support — so far the COPRA is backed only by Democrats — the plan creates an important starting point in creating an online privacy plan nationwide.

We hope it gains traction.

The U.S. already is behind the European Union, which adopted its consumer privacy protection rules in 2016. The General Data Protection Regulation requires businesses to protect the personal data and privacy of citizens in all 28 EU member states, and also covers that data if it goes outside the EU.

Companies profit from the personal data they collect, but most people have no idea how their personal information is being used.

It’s time federal lawmakers fixed this disturbing situation and give people a way to control their personal information online.