California’s consumer privacy law is a call to action for federal regulators

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Flashers

Federal Trade Commission chair Joseph Simons was on the undercard for Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro’s “fireside chats” with federal policymakers at CES in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Warming up the audience ahead of Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai’s long awaited CES debut, he urged congress to give his agency the U.S. privacy cop job that California now holds by default. The FTC is already pursuing privacy enforcement actions under existing law “because the big tech platforms are becoming so consequential to our lives and so large”, Simon said.

Simon favors federal privacy legislation over the state by state approach. “Of course, now we’re dealing with California”, he said. There’s a place for state-level consumer privacy legislation, but “it depends on how the states evolve and how the federal law evolves”. So long as a state law tracks with federal requirements he seems to be okay with it, but if it doesn’t he wants congress to step in. In other words, states can tinker with the details so long as they stay in the federal privacy policy sandbox.

There is bipartisan agreement in Washington, D.C. that the sandbox should be built, but democrats and republicans disagree on a couple of key issues. Two FTC commissioners – democrat Rebecca Slaughter and republican Christine Wilson – took part in a separate panel discussion later in the day. They both favor federalising consumer privacy rules. Wilson said that California’s privacy law, along with the European Union’s privacy regulations, makes federal action urgent “because interoperability is needed”.

They disagreed about a couple of key details, which largely define the partisan gap on privacy legislation: whether congress should completely occupy the field and preempt states and whether private individuals – in reality, trial lawyers – should be able to sue companies that don’t follow the rules. Democrats, like Slaughter, tend to say yes to both; republicans, like Wilson, are on the no side.