The Hawks and Doves of Washington’s Privacy Debate

Which government officials will influence data privacy in 2014?

Ever since Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance, every day has been data privacy day in Washington. But Tuesday is the official day Congress designated in 2009 to raise consumer awareness.

To commemorate the day, Adweek—inspired by a list compiled by the Marketing Research Association—has identified the top 10 government players leading the data privacy debate. While chances are slim that any new privacy legislation will be passed this year (an election year), policymakers will continue to put pressure on companies and advertisers to instill "privacy by design" into their policies and practices and take additional steps to self-regulate to protect consumer privacy. They are:

10. California Attorney General Kamala Harris  HAWK

New data privacy legislation in Washington may be at a standstill, but not in California, which has taken the lead on consumer privacy regulation and data security. Going into effect this year are new laws that give minors the right to erase information they posted and another law that requires more transparency for online tracking. Harris has also stepped up enforcement of mobile app privacy policies. 

9. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)  HAWK

New to the Senate, Markey, one of Congress' most notable privacy hawks, spent more than 35 years in the House, many of those advocating privacy legislation. With Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), he served as co-chair of the bipartisan congressional privacy caucus. Markey was one of the authors of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, and he continues to push to expand the law to include teens in his Do Not Track Kids Act. He has also opened up investigations into data broker privacy practices and mobile privacy practices. 


8. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)  DOVE

As co-chair with Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Blackburn is holding a series of privacy working group meetings with stakeholders as a prelude to hearings and possible legislation. But unlike Markey and some other privacy hawks in Congress, Blackburn takes a more skeptical view of the need for new privacy laws. She has spoken many times before industry organizations such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau, recommending caution about creating new privacy laws that might chill the Internet business—she called the government "unfit to control" big data.

7. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)  HAWK

As chairman of the privacy, technology and law subcommittee launched in 2011, Franken has become an outspoken privacy hawk on mobile privacy, particularly geolocation data. It was Franken who managed to haul Google and Apple in front of his subcommittee to challenge their privacy practices. His Location Privacy Protection Act would require mobile devices to obtain express consent before collecting or sharing geolocation data. More recently, Franken has been investigating the data collection practices of automobile navigation services

6. FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen (R)  DOVE

Commissioner Ohlhausen has taken a strong interest in the Internet of things, but not because she believes it ought to be preemptively regulated. A common theme in all of her recent speeches is that the FTC should approach its privacy authority with a "dose of regulatory humility." However, she believes that the FTC should use its enforcement authority if a company's privacy or data security practices lead to consumer harm. 

5. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)  DOVE

As chairman of the commerce, manufacturing and trade subcommittee, Terry's committee has jurisdiction over privacy issues. So far, his focus has been on data security and not commercial privacy. He'll be reluctant to pursue new data privacy laws, recently calling data "the new gold" of the U.S. economy. 

4. FTC Commissioner Julie Brill (D)  HAWK

Commissioner Brill has been a relentless and vocal advocate for more consumer privacy practices. Last year, she began to turn up the heat on data brokers, even coining the slogan "reclaim your name." Brill has tried to coax data brokers into figuring out how to develop a Web-based portal where consumers could access their data, make changes or opt out altogether. Perhaps in response, Acxiom, one of the nation's largest data brokers, launched a Web portal to give consumers more control. The FTC's report on data brokers is expected to be released early this year. 

3. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)  HAWK

The powerful chairman of the Senate commerce committee may be retiring, but don't count him out yet. An ardent believer that it is a consumer's right to elect to not be tracked, and a disbeliever in the ad industry's self-regulatory efforts, the senator may still yet get some traction on Do Not Track Online Act. He has also opened up a probe into data brokers, calling them "the dark underside of American life."

2. FTC Chair Edith Ramirez (D)  HAWK

The FTC is considered to be the privacy agency, but the question is how far it will extend its "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" authority. The agency already has Facebook and Google under consent decrees and has begun to bring mobile cases when apps fail to clearly inform consumers of their privacy policies. At the outset of her administration, Ramirez signaled it would be looking at the Internet of things for the impact it could have on big data and privacy risks, already bringing one enforcement case and holding a workshop. 

1. President Barack Obama (D)  HAWK

The commander in chief has set the agenda for the privacy debate in Washington and is reportedly drafting his own comprehensive consumer data privacy legislation. Meanwhile, through the Commerce department, the administration advocated a privacy bill of rights and the Federal Trade Commission issued its own report. Because legislation often moves slowly, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration formed a multistakeholder process for setting industry privacy guidelines last year for mobile apps and this year for facial recognition. Much to the dismay of the data marketing industry, Obama used a major policy address on government surveillance practices to also call for a comprehensive review of big data and privacy.