GOP senator wants to give users power to say no to Google and Facebook

Sen. Josh Hawley's legislation would give "Do Not Track" legal weight and penalize companies that ignore it.
Image: Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 1, 2019.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 1, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP file

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By Allan Smith

In his latest salvo aimed at big tech, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Monday he will introduce legislation that would give consumers greater power to prevent companies from harvesting their data.

His bill, which he plans to introduce Tuesday, aims to bolster "Do Not Track," an internet feature that allows users to request that websites be blocked from collecting their personal data. Currently, complying with those user requests is voluntary, even though the Federal Trade Commission endorsed "Do Not Track" in 2010. Hawley's bill, called the The Do Not Track Act, would make it illegal for websites and companies to disregard a user's preference.

"Big tech companies collect incredible amounts of deeply personal, private data from people without giving them the option to meaningfully consent," Hawley said in a statement. "They have gotten incredibly rich by employing creepy surveillance tactics on their users, but too often the extent of this data extraction is only known after a tech company irresponsibly handles the data and leaks it all over the internet. The American people didn't sign up for this, so I'm introducing this legislation to finally give them control over their personal information online."

Hawley's legislation would also expand the service to cover all internet activity — not just what takes place in a browser. App users would then have the ability to block programs from harvesting data beyond what is necessary for those services to function.

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In addition to codifying "Do Not Track," the Hawley bill would prohibit companies from profiling or discriminating against people who activate the service, ban companies from transferring data to other companies under most circumstances once a person activates the service and impose stiff penalties for companies that violate any of the bill's provisions.

Users would be able to enroll in the service through their browser settings — as is the case currently — or by downloading an app.

Growing concern about the privacy and societal implications of widespread data collection has led to scrutiny over how major tech companies track users, with Google and Facebook under particularly close scrutiny for their data collection practices. Facebook, Google, Twitter and other prominent sites don't honor the existing "Do Not Track" system.

As Gizmodo wrote last year: "The main reason why Do Not Track ... became a useless tool is that the government refused to step in and give it any kind of legal authority."

"If a telemarketer violates the Do Not Call list, they can be fined up to $16,000 per violation," according to the Gizmodo report. "There is no penalty for ignoring Do Not Track."

Similar legislative efforts have stalled in Congress over the last decade. Earlier this month, Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused tech company, authored a draft legislation he intended for congressional lawmakers to take up called The Do Not Track Act of 2019. Now, Weinberg is endorsing the Missouri Republican's effort.

"Senator Hawley recognizes the pervasive nature of online tracking, and we're thrilled he is taking legislative action to combat it," Weinberg said in a statement. "Our research shows tens of millions of Americans are right now broadcasting Do Not Track browsing signals that Big Tech is ignoring."

Hawley, the Senate's youngest member, has fashioned himself as a staunch opponent of big tech's practices. Contrary to conservative orthodoxy, the senator has called for the government to take an increasingly active role in regulating Google and Facebook.

CORRECTION (May 20, 2019, 10:30 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated when Sen. Josh Hawley plans to introduce his legislation. He will introduce the bill Tuesday, not Monday.