Trump Administration suggests tighter consumer data controls

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(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration is seeking public input on ways to protect consumer privacy and data online, suggesting that any plan should increase user control over what information to provide and should require that organizations be accountable for what they collect.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is seeking the comments at a time when tech companies face greater scrutiny in Washington, in state legislatures and from state attorneys general, including over the breadth of information they collect from users.

The request announced Tuesday also comes a day before the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on privacy with representatives from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, AT&T Inc., Inc. and Apple Inc. The panel’s Republican chairman, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, has said he’s looking at legislation, which could proceed separately from the administration’s efforts.

The administration wants comments on what it calls “desired outcomes” rather than dictates about data practices, and it doesn’t define terms like control or accountability. It seeks comments on the idea that “the collection, use, storage and sharing of personal data should be reasonably minimized” with regard to the sensitivity of the information; that “organizations should employ security safeguards;” and that consumers should be able to correct information about them in reasonable circumstances.

In recent weeks, several industry groups have also proposed similar principles for privacy laws or rules as they seek to influence the momentum for policy action on privacy. Google on Monday proposed a “framework” for such regulation as well. Europe’s new rules went into effect in May, and California passed a tough privacy law in June.

"This is a positive step toward modernizing our laws so they better align with user expectations and enable the technology driving our future," Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council trade group, said in a statement. The group counts Google and Microsoft Corp. among its members.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said, however, that he feels that the administration is "soft-pedaling privacy" in the framework.

"I think it’s sending a signal that the administration is not willing to crack down," said Chester, who wants to see more authority for the Federal Trade Commission and broad definitions of personal data that could take in the full practices of companies like Google and Facebook Inc. "This is a circling of the privacy wagons to ward off what is going to be a push by advocates and their champions in Congress to enact a sweeping privacy law."

He said a group of privacy advocates would have their own proposals ready in the coming weeks.

NTIA Administrator David Redl told reporters Tuesday if the comments pushed for legislation, "certainly we will consider that path forward." The agency has had "preliminary conversations" with congressional staff, Redl said, and hopes to "get a broad range of comments from individuals and companies."

Comments are due by Oct. 26.

Bloomberg News