Jail time for tech execs? A Democratic senator is proposing it.

The bill from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would allow tech companies to charge a reasonable fee for the versions without tracking, and the fee would be waived for people with low incomes.
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A person logs into Facebook on an iPad.Jason Alden / Bloomberg via Getty file

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By David Ingram

A Democratic senator who frequently takes the lead on tech issues said Thursday that he was introducing legislation for a national “Do Not Track” system that would require tech companies such as Facebook and Google to offer privacy-friendly versions that don’t have targeted ads or other kinds of tracking.

The bill from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would allow tech companies to charge a reasonable fee for the versions without tracking, and the fee would be waived for people with low incomes, according to a description of the legislation released by his office.

Wyden’s bill would also create criminal penalties up to a 20-year prison sentence for senior corporate executives who lie to the Federal Trade Commission — an idea that Wyden has raised with regard to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“Mark Zuckerberg won’t take Americans’ privacy seriously unless he feels personal consequences,” Wyden said in a statement. “A slap on the wrist from the FTC won’t do the job, so under my bill he’d face jail time for lying to the government.”

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Under Wyden’s proposal, companies could also face fines of up to 4 percent of annual revenue for privacy violations and a new tax if their CEOs lie about privacy protections.

Zuckerberg is scheduled to speak Thursday at Georgetown University in Washington at 1 p.m., on the subject of “voice and free expression.” On Wednesday, he met with Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Facebook has previously rejected claims that Zuckerberg has lied about or misrepresented the company’s privacy practices.

Wyden’s legislation is the latest sign that large tech companies face a growing backlash within Congress as well as in the Trump administration because of their influence over privacy, the economy, elections and everyday life.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are investigating the companies for possible antitrust violations, and other lawmakers including Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have called for something like a national “Do Not Track” system.

Executives from Google and Reddit were on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, testifying about a 1996 federal law that shields internet companies from most legal claims, such as defamation lawsuits, that they might otherwise face for publishing material from third parties.

Wyden released a draft of his legislation nearly a year ago, and he has used the time since to gather feedback and make changes. The latest version would allow state attorneys general to enforce federal privacy regulations and keep in place existing state privacy laws that go further, such as a California law due to take effect in January.

His legislation would also let people find out what personal information a company has about them and give them an opportunity to challenge inaccuracies, and it would provide money for 175 more staff to enforce laws and regulations about private data.