Congress Prepares to Reintroduce Privacy Law, GOP Introduces Hatch Act Expansion, $20 Million ECF Round

Lawmakers from both parties highlighted concerns about targeted advertising practices.

Congress Prepares to Reintroduce Privacy Law, GOP Introduces Hatch Act Expansion, $20 Million ECF Round
Photo of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2015 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

March 1, 2023 — At a Wednesday hearing of the House Innovation, Data and Commerce Subcommittee, lawmakers from both parties reiterated their support for federal privacy legislation and discussed how to build on the momentum gained by the American Data Privacy and Protection Act in the previous session of Congress.

“That was the first time this committee reached such a milestone, and no other committee has come close on a national privacy and data security standard with the bipartisan support necessary to clear the House and make the Senate take notice,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the full Energy and Commerce Committee.

Subcommittee Chair Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., drew attention to the increasing prevalence of targeted advertising, calling for more individual consumer choice.

“To some, these practices may be viewed as more convenient for their shopping or useful for how they digest information, but others may find this practice invasive and unsolicited,” he said.

Alexandra Reeve Givens, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, testified about the harms of targeted advertising, noting that the practices extend far beyond shopping recommendations.

“It might not seem that important if a person is targeted with particular clothing ads,” she said. “But it matters when predatory lenders can hyper-target an audience that is vulnerable to payday loans and exploitative interest rates, as has happened with veterans and families navigating medical crises… It matters when inferences about people are used to unfairly target ads for jobs, housing or credit.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., voiced concerns about worsening youth mental health, saying that the problem was exacerbated by the “harmful targeting of advertising on social media… particularly among our young people.”

Although much of the hearing was focused on strengthening privacy protections, Bilirakis cautioned against placing an undue burden on businesses.

“Companies, especially small startups, shouldn’t be subject to random or punitive letters in the mail notifying them that certain practices could be unfair or deceptive,” he said. “It is essential that the [Federal Trade Commission] enforce the laws that we as a Congress enact and specifically authorize, but not go rogue beyond the rules of the road we provide.”

GOP lawmakers aim to restrict government interaction with social media companies

The Republican-led House Oversight Committee on Tuesday passed two bills that would place new restrictions on government interactions with private companies, with GOP lawmakers claiming the measures would limit alleged government censorship of right-wing viewpoints on social media.

The Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, introduced by Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., would expand the Hatch Act — the law restricting the political activities of federal employees — to explicitly bar government officials from advocating for an online platform to remove, suppress, or add a disclaimer or alert to third party content.

Comer claimed that President Joe Biden’s administration “has eroded Americans’ First Amendment rights by bullying social media companies to censor certain views and news on their platforms.”

But Ranking Member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., argued that the bill was based on a “false premise,” pointing to a previous hearing in which Twitter executives testified they did not receive pressure from government officials to remove links to an October 2020 New York Post article about Hunter Biden.

“Compelling social media to carry the propaganda of big liars cannot be the meaning of free speech in the 21st century,” Raskin said.

The committee also passed the Accountability for Government Censorship Act, which would require federal agencies to submit a report to Congress detailing every instance from the past five years when an employee communicated with an interactive computer service for the purpose of restricting or adding disclaimers to lawful speech.

FCC announces $20 million ECF round, as program approaches completion

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday announced a new $20 million funding round through the Emergency Connectivity Fund program, as part of the agency’s continued push to close the “homework gap” for students who lack the necessary internet access and devices to engage in remote learning.

The funding will support more than 100 schools and libraries across six different states — benefiting approximately 190,000 students, the agency said. While the majority of the funding will go to applications from the third and final filing window, nearly $375,000 will support applications from the two previous windows.

“Today’s funding round is another important step in our ongoing work to connect all our students to digital tools for communicating with teachers and schools,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said.

Since the launch of the $7.171 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund in 2021, the FCC has approved a total of $6.6 billion in funding commitments. The program is set to end this year, with the service delivery deadline for the first two rounds approaching on June 30, but some organizations have called on Congress to allocate additional funding for its extension.

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