EFF is concerned that a new federal bill would freeze consumer data privacy protections in place, by preempting existing state laws and preventing states from creating stronger protections in the future. Federal law should be the floor on which states can build, not a ceiling.

We also urge the authors of the American Privacy Rights Act (APRA) to strengthen other portions of the bill. It should be easier to sue companies that violate our rights. The bill should limit sharing with the government and expand the definition of sensitive data. And it should narrow exceptions that allow companies to exploit our biometric information, our so-called “de-identified” data, and our data obtained in corporate “loyalty” schemes.

Despite our concerns with the APRA bill, we are glad Congress is pivoting the debate to a privacy-first approach to online regulation. Reining in companies’ massive collection, misuse, and transfer of everyone’s personal data should be the unifying goal of those who care about the internet. This debate has been absent at the federal level in the past year, giving breathing room to flawed bills that focus on censorship and content blocking, rather than privacy.

In general, the APRA would require companies to minimize their processing of personal data to what is necessary, proportionate, and limited to certain enumerated purposes. It would specifically require opt-in consent for the transfer of sensitive data, and most processing of biometric and genetic data. It would also give consumers the right to access, correct, delete, and export their data. And it would allow consumers to universally opt-out of the collection of their personal data from brokers, using a registry maintained by the Federal Trade Commission.

We welcome many of these privacy protections. Below are a few of our top priorities to correct and strengthen the APRA bill.

Allow States to Pass Stronger Privacy Laws

The APRA should not preempt existing and future state data privacy laws that are stronger than the current bill. The ability to pass stronger bills at the state and local level is an important tool in the fight for data privacy. We ask that Congress not compromise our privacy rights by undercutting the very state-level action that spurred this compromise federal data privacy bill in the first place.

Subject to exceptions, the APRA says that no state may “adopt, maintain, enforce, or continue in effect” any state-level privacy requirement addressed by the new bill. APRA would allow many state sectoral privacy laws to remain, but it would still preempt protections for biometric data, location data, online ad tracking signals, and maybe even privacy protections in state constitutions or some other limits on what private companies can share with the government. At the federal level, the APRA would also wrongly preempt many parts of the federal Communications Act, including provisions that limit a telephone company’s use, disclosure, and access to customer proprietary network information, including location information.

Just as important, it would prevent states from creating stronger privacy laws in the future. States are more nimble at passing laws to address new privacy harms as they arise, compared to Congress which has failed for decades to update important protections. For example, if lawmakers in Washington state wanted to follow EFF’s advice to ban online behavioral advertising or to allow its citizens to sue companies for not minimizing their collection of personal data (provisions where APRA falls short), state legislators would have no power to do so under the new federal bill.

Make It Easier for Individuals to Enforce Their Privacy Rights

The APRA should prevent coercive forced arbitration agreements and class action waivers, allow people to sue for statutory damages, and allow them to bring their case in state court. These rights would allow for rigorous enforcement and help force companies to prioritize consumer privacy.

The APRA has a private right of action, but it is a half-measure that still lets companies side-step many legitimate lawsuits. And the private right of action does not apply to some of the most important parts of the law, including the central data minimization requirement.

The favorite tool of companies looking to get rid of privacy lawsuits is to bury provision in their terms of service that force individuals into private arbitration and prevent class action lawsuits. The APRA does not address class action waivers and only prevents forced arbitration for children and people who allege “substantial” privacy harm. In addition, statutory damages and enforcement in state courts is essential, because many times federal courts still struggle to acknowledge privacy harm as real—relying instead on a cramped view that does not recognize privacy as a human right. In addition, the bill would allow companies to cure violations rather than face a lawsuit, incentivizing companies to skirt the law until they are caught.

Limit Exceptions for Sharing with the Government

APRA should close a loophole that may allow data brokers to sell data to the government and should require the government to obtain a court order before compelling disclosure of user data. This is important because corporate surveillance and government surveillance are often the same.

Under the APRA, government contractors do not have to follow the bill’s privacy protections. Those include any “entity that is collecting, processing, retaining, or transferring covered data on behalf of a Federal, State, Tribal, territorial, or local government entity, to the extent that such entity is acting as a service provider to the government entity.” Read broadly, this provision could protect data brokers who sell biometric information and location information to the government. In fact, Clearview AI previously argued it was exempt from Illinois’ strict biometric law using a similar contractor exception. This is a point that needs revision because other parts of the bill rightly prevent covered entities (government contractors excluded) from selling data to the government for the purpose of fraud detection, public safety, and criminal activity detection.

The APRA also allows entities to transfer personal data to the government pursuant to a “lawful warrant, administrative subpoena, or other form of lawful process.” EFF urges that the requirement be strengthened to at least a court order or warrant with prompt notice to the consumer. Protections like this are not unique, and it is especially important in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

Strengthen the Definition of Sensitive Data

The APRA has heightened protections for sensitive data, and it includes a long list of 18 categories of sensitive data, like: biometrics, precise geolocation, private communications, and an individual’s online activity overtime and across websites. This is a good list that can be added to. We ask Congress to add other categories, like immigration status, union membership, employment history, familial and social relationships, and any covered data processed in a way that would violate a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The sensitivity of data is context specific—meaning any data can be sensitive depending on how it is used. The bill should be amended to reflect that.

Limit Other Exceptions for Biometrics, De-identified Data, and Loyalty Programs

An important part of any bill is to make sure the exceptions do not swallow the rule. The APRA’s exceptions on biometric information, de-identified data, and loyalty programs should be narrowed.

In APRA, biometric information means data “generated from the measurement or processing of the individual’s unique biological, physical, or physiological characteristics that is linked or reasonably linkable to the individual” and excludes “metadata associated with a digital or physical photograph or an audio or video recording that cannot be used to identify an individual.” EFF is concerned this definition will not protect biometric information used for analysis of sentiment, demographics, and emotion, and could be used to argue hashed biometric identifiers are not covered.

De-identified data is excluded from the definition of personal data covered by the APRA, and companies and service providers can turn personal data into de-identified data to process it however they want. The problem with de-identified data is that many times it is not. Moreover, many people do not want their private data that they store in confidence with a company to then be used to improve that company’s product or train its algorithm—even if the data has purportedly been de-identified.

Many companies under the APRA can host loyalty programs and can sell that data with opt-in consent. Loyalty programs are a type of pay-for-privacy scheme that pressure people to surrender their privacy rights as if they were a commodity. Worse, because of our society’s glaring economic inequalities, these schemes will unjustly lead to a society of privacy “haves” and “have-nots.” At the very least, the bill should be amended to prevent companies from selling data that they obtain from a loyalty program.

We welcome Congress' privacy-first approach in the APRA and encourage the authors to improve the bill to ensure privacy is protected for generations to come.

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