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The Messy Progress on Data Privacy

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The latest attempt to create the primary broad national data privacy law in america is causing the everyday nonsense in Washington. But from the mess in Congress and elsewhere within the U.S., we’re finally seeing progress in defending Americans from the unrestrained information-harvesting economy.

What’s emerging is a growing consensus and a body of (imperfect) laws that give people real control and corporations more responsibility to tame the nearly limitless harvesting of our data. Given all of the bickering, tacky lobbying tactics and gridlock, it won’t seem like winning from up close. But it surely is.

Let me zoom out to the large picture within the U.S. Tech firms like Facebook and Google, mostly unknown data middlemen and even the local supermarket harvest any morsel of information on us that may help their businesses.

We profit from this technique in some ways, including when businesses find customers more efficiently through targeted ads. However the existence of a lot information on virtually everyone, with few restrictions on its use, creates conditions for abuse. It also contributes to public mistrust of technology and tech firms. Even some firms which have benefited from unrestricted data collection now say the system needs reform.

Smarter policy and enforcement are a part of the reply, but there are not any quick fixes — and there can be downsides. Some consumer privacy advocates have said for years that Americans need a federal data privacy law that protects them irrespective of where they live. Members of Congress have discussed, but didn’t pass, such a law over the past few years.

The weird thing now could be that big firms, policymakers in each parties and privacy die-hards appear to agree that a national privacy law is welcome. Their motivations and visions for such a law, though, are different. That is where it gets frustrating.

A consortium that features corporate and technology trade groups kicked off a marketing campaign recently that calls for a federal privacy law — but only under very specific conditions, to reduce the disruption to their businesses.

They need to make sure that that any federal law would overrule stronger state privacy laws, so businesses can follow one guideline somewhat than dozens of probably conflicting ones. Businesses can also hope that a law passed by Congress is less disruptive to them than anything the Federal Trade Commission, which now has a Democratic majority, implements.

That is one in every of those legislative tugs of war that’s unseemly to look at from the skin and enraging to longtime consumer privacy advocates. Evan Greer, director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, told me she sees what corporate lobbyists are supporting as “watered down, industry-friendly laws that provide privacy in name only.”

Behind the muck, though, there’s emerging agreement on many essential elements of a federal privacy law. Even the most important sticking points — whether a federal law should override stronger state laws, and whether individuals can sue over privacy violations — now appear to have workable middle grounds. One possibility is that the federal law would overrule any future state laws but not existing ones. And folks is perhaps given the proper to sue for privacy breaches under limited circumstances, including for repeat violations.

Laws will not be a cure-all for our digital privacy mess. Even smart public policies produce unwanted trade-offs, and sometimes poorly designed or inadequately enforced laws make things worse. Sometimes recent laws can feel pointless.

Most individuals’s experience with Europe’s sweeping 2018 digital privacy regulation, the General Data Protection Regulation or G.D.P.R., is annoying pop-up notices about data tracking cookies. The primary of two of California’s digital privacy provisions in theory gives people control over how their data is used, but in practice often involves filling out onerous forms. And up to date data privacy laws in Virginia and Utah mostly gave industry groups what they wanted.

Is any of that progress on protecting our data? Kinda, yes!

Some privacy advocates may disagree with this, but even imperfect laws and a shifting mind-set amongst the general public and policymakers are profound changes. They show that the defaults of America’s data-harvesting system are unraveling and more responsibility is shifting to data-collecting firms, not individuals, to preserve our rights.

“Progress looks like not completely perfect laws; there isn’t a such thing. It looks like suits and starts,” Gennie Gebhart, the activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, told me.

I don’t know if there’ll ever be a federal privacy law. Gridlock rules, and such regulation is difficult. But behind the lobbying and the indecision, the terms of the talk over data privacy have modified.

  • Yikes in cryptocurrencies: The costs of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been falling steadily, which my colleague David Yaffe-Bellany said shows that cryptocurrencies are increasingly resembling dangerous tech stocks.

    Also, the virtual currency TerraUSD is purported to be price $1 each, and it has collapsed far below that level. Here’s why that’s a giant deal, from my colleagues at DealBook.

  • The local florist now delivers for Amazon: To hurry up deliveries in rural parts of the U.S., Amazon has been experimenting with paying small businesses just a few dollars per package to deliver orders to nearby homes, Recode reported.

  • Instagram believed that a recent dad was interested by “disability” and “fear.” A Washington Post columnist explores why disturbing images interrupted his newborn’s Instagram feed and advocates for a approach to reset social media algorithms once they don’t work for us. (A subscription could also be required.)

Puppppppy coming straight on your face!

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