Rep. Terry Defends U.S. Data Economy as ‘Gold’

Key House lawmaker lays out privacy and data security agenda

While privacy advocates are looking to Europe to force the U.S. to adopt stricter privacy laws, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said not so fast. Referencing the Direct Marketing Association's recent study that found data-driven marketing contributes $156 billion to the economy, Terry posited that the U.S. should think of privacy as a trade issue.

"Data is the new gold," said Terry, the chairman of the commerce, manufacturing and trade subcommittee that has jurisdiction over privacy and data security issues. "It's not just big business that relies on data, but small business," he said.

Terry delivered a keynote address on Tuesday at a DMA forum in Washington for policymakers. Responding to a string of investigations by lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission into data broker privacy practices, the DMA commissioned a study that quantifies the value of the data-driven marketing industry to the economy. 

Praising the DMA's study as "meaty" and "useful" in making the case, Terry argued that U.S. privacy policies—a combination of self-regulation and FTC oversight—are responsible for the U.S.' global leadership in data innovation. "Our policy gives us enough flexibility; it is the reason why we are dominant data innovators and Europe is not.

"We need to get the message out that the overzealous policies of Europe that have hindered commerce should not be a part of our trade agreement," Terry added.

That won't be easy because of the mounting controversy over NSA surveillance, which has given new momentum to privacy advocates.

"What the NSA has done should not affect the discussions on privacy except everyone in Europe is using it that way. They are two completely different issues, but they're using it to justify stricter policies," Terry said. "It's a steep uphill climb to convince Europe we're right, but we have to do that."

Contrary to those who conflate the NSA with online privacy issues, Terry said that 100 percent of the people he has talked to in the last six months are more concerned with government use of personal data, not so much corporate use. "They talk about IRS or some other agency, not Google," Terry said.

However, people are concerned that corporations keep their data secure. Terry plans to hold more data security hearings and hopes to offer a data security or notification of breach bill.

It will be at least until next year before Terry gets to commercial privacy issues in the subcommittee. Terry said he is relying on the task force he formed, headed by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), to sort out which issues require legislation and which do not. The task force is currently holding a series of private meetings with all stakeholders, which will last into next year. Often knocked for being held behind closed doors, Terry defended the task force process.

"It's private so we can ask stupid questions," he said. "You can't do that as a member of Congress with a room full of people and reporters. We're not going to rush it [the process]."