Privacy First” is a simple, powerful idea: seeing as so many of today’s technological problems are also privacy problems, why don’t we fix privacy first?

Whether you’re worried about kids’ mental health, or tech’s relationship to journalism, or spying by foreign adversaries, or reproductive rights, or AI deepfakes, or nonconsensual pornography, you’re worried about a problem rooted in the primitive, deplorable state of American privacy law.

It’s really impossible to overstate how bad the state of federal privacy law is in America. The last time the USA got a big, muscular, broadly applicable new consumer privacy law, the year was 1988, and the law was targeted at video-store clerks who leaked your VHS rental history.

It’s been a minute. America is long overdue for a strong, comprehensive privacy law

A new privacy law will help us with all those issues, and more. It would level the playing field between giants with troves of user data and startups who want to build something better. Such a law would keep competition from becoming a race to the bottom on user privacy.

Importantly, a strong privacy law will go a long way to improving the dismal state of competition in America’s ossified and decaying tech sector.

Take the tech sector’s relationship to the news media. The ad-tech duopoly has rigged the advertising market and takes $0.51 out of every advertising dollar. Without their vast troves of nonconsensually harvested personal data, Meta and Google wouldn’t be able to misappropriate billions from the publishers. Banning surveillance advertising wouldn’t just be good for our privacy - it would give publishers leverage to shift those billions back onto their own balance sheets. 

Undoing market concentration will require interoperability so that users can move from dominant services to new, innovative rivals without losing their data and relationships. The biggest challenge to interoperability? Privacy. Every time a user moves from one service to another, the resulting data-flows create risks for those users and their friends, families, customers and other social connections. Congress knows this, which is why every proposed interoperability law incorporates its own little privacy law. Privacy shouldn’t be an afterthought in a tech regulation. A standalone privacy law would give lawmakers the freedom to promote interoperability without having to work out a new privacy system for each effort.

That’s also true of Right to Repair laws: these laws are routinely opposed by tech monopolists who insist that giving Americans the right to choose their own repair shop or parts exposes them to privacy risks. It’s true that our devices harbor vast troves of sensitive information - but that doesn’t mean we should let Big Tech (or Big Car) monopolize repair. Instead, we should require everyone - both original manufacturers and independent repair shops - to honor your privacy.

America’s legal privacy vacuum is largely the result of the commercial surveillance industry’s lobbying power. Increasing competition in the tech sector won’t just help our privacy: it’ll also weaken tech’s lobbying power, which is a function of the vast profits that can be extracted in the absence of “wasteful competition” and the ease with which a concentrated sector can converge on a common lobbying position. 

That’s why EFF has urged the FTC and DOJ to consider privacy impacts when scrutinizing proposed mergers: not just to protect internet users from the harms of surveillance business models, but to protect democracy from the corrupting influence of surveillance cartels.

Privacy isn’t dead. Far from it. For a quarter of a century, would-be tech monopolists have been insisting that we have no privacy and telling us to “get over it.” The vast majority of the public wants privacy and will take it if offered, and grab it if it’s not.  

Whenever someone tells you that privacy is dead, they’re just wishcasting. What they mean is: “If I can convince you privacy is dead, I can make more money at your expense.”

Monopolists want us to believe that their power over our lives is inevitable and unchangeable, just as the surveillance industry banks on convincing you that the fight for privacy was and always will be a lost cause. But we once had a better internet, and we can get a better internet again. The fight for that better internet starts with privacy, a battle that we all want to win.

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