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Time for Action at the Intersection of Privacy and Civil Rights

Remarks of Alan Davidson  
Assistant Secretary of Communications and Information  
National Telecommunications and Information Administration  
 Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Center on Privacy & Technology

“Building on the Dream: Privacy, Equity, and Civil Rights”

January 18, 2023

Thank you Amber. And thank you to the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Center on Privacy & Technology for bringing us all together – in person and online – to discuss the need for action at the intersection of privacy and civil rights.

When I first started in this field, at the Center for Democracy and Technology in 1995, there were 40 million people on the Internet. Today there are roughly 5 billion.

The Internet is now the essential human tool for communications—and for access to work, to education, to civic life, to connections with our friends and families.

I think if you had asked a lot of us back in those early days of the Internet, if we would expect that 25 years later, in 2023, we would find ourselves without a comprehensive federal privacy law – I think many of us would have been surprised.

And for good reason, because there are now-routine practices that would have shocked us back then. For example:

  • Detailed location information about our whereabouts is easily available for sale.
  • Photos of faces are regularly scraped from the Internet to power facial recognition algorithms.
  • Companies build detailed profiles of us based on the links we click on, the things we read online, even how long we pause as we scroll past a video.

We know that the effects of those practices are damaging, and are often most damaging to people of color and other marginalized communities. All of this cries out for a greater level of oversight now.

Unchecked data collection also can end up in the hands of our adversaries and competitors, including China, and exploited in ways that undermine our national security.

For all those reasons, the President, in his op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal last week, has called on Congress to pass a comprehensive federal privacy law. President Biden is calling for clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data—from your health, genetic, and biometric data, as well as your Internet history and personal communications.

We need a comprehensive federal privacy law.

  • Though some states have taken the lead, far too many in America lack baseline protections for their personal information.
  • A national standard is a much better way to operate.
    • Where you live in this country should not dictate what kind of privacy you have.
    • Privacy rights shouldn’t change when you cross state lines.
  • Without a national standard, the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world.
    • We speak to governments around the world and promote our vision of a free, open, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet.
    • It's very hard to do that when other countries see that we're not even able to provide basic privacy protections at home.
  • Protecting privacy and promoting innovation are complementary goals. Guardrails over how to use data can promote innovation by encouraging consumer trust, and offering clarity to companies about what they can build.
  • The President has also highlighted the need for even stronger protections for young people, calling of a ban of targeted advertising for children.

The need for a comprehensive privacy law is especially acute when we consider the impact on disadvantaged groups.

We know there are few areas where the consequences of these practices are more starkly felt than in violations of the privacy and security of marginalized communities. A few examples:

  • Facial recognition tools today have disproportionately misidentified people of color, putting them at heightened risk of privacy invasions or unfair treatment.
  • Online job and housing ads have contributed to the exclusion of some groups.
  • Apps that collect our location data can reveal sensitive information such as religion or sexual orientation.

For all these reasons, we need more protections for these communities.

Existing civil rights laws can help protect against some of these violations. But there is much more work to be done.

At NTIA, a big part of our job is to focus on not just what the law says today, but what the law ought to say.

It is with that in mind that today we are issuing a Request for Comment on how we can increase our vigilance at the intersection of privacy and civil rights.

Our inquiry will help us analyze the outsized consequences that data practices can have on marginalized groups, and make specific recommendations on solutions.

We know addressing the disproportionate harms borne by these communities will take more than just privacy reforms. But increased protections are an important step toward that goal.

That’s why I’m delighted to be here with you to kick off this panel of privacy all-stars.

  • These experts have already done stellar work thinking about these problems and the best solutions.
  • I’m looking forward to hearing from them, and all of you as we move forward with our inquiry.

In closing, I would just note that, as you all know, we have been waiting a long time for a privacy law.

That is why President Biden urged Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass strong bipartisan legislation and serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy.

And as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, we should recall his advice: “The time is always right to do what is right.”

  • What is right today is passing a privacy law that ensures everyone in America has strong privacy protections.
  • What is right today is making extra effort to protect the privacy of the most vulnerable among us.
  • What is right today is making the US once again a global leader in protecting people online.
  • And the right time for that is now.

Thank you.