House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy Wants a Data-Privacy Law
The Wall Street Journal
Kristina Peterson & Lindsay Wise
June 20, 2019

WASHINGTON—House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy backed the idea of national legislation to safeguard consumers’ data privacy, adding a prominent GOP voice to the bipartisan support in Congress for tackling how technology companies amass and use their information.

Lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate have been working on bills aimed at strengthening individuals’ ability to control their data collected by the biggest technology companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc.

It isn’t yet clear which, if any, legislation could secure enough support to become law. But the comments from Mr. McCarthy and others indicated that there was significant bipartisan support for establishing stronger privacy guidelines.

“There needs to be a national-level regulation, not state-by-state on what we’re going to do about privacy,” Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican, said in an interview Thursday with The Wall Street Journal. “We should know what data you keep on us. We should be able to take our data and be able to delete our data.”

Mr. McCarthy said he plans to introduce legislation that would ensure that people know what data companies are tracking and allow them to transfer or delete that data.

A data-privacy law passed last year in California helped spur action from both Mr. McCarthy and a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on privacy legislation in the Senate. Many view the law, set to take effect in January 2020, as the strictest consumer-privacy law in the U.S.

The California law broadens the definition of what constitutes personal information and gives the state’s consumers the right to prohibit the sale of personal data to third parties and opt out of sharing it altogether.

“If California goes into effect and then every other state’s doing one, we’re going to disrupt whatever growth we can have within technology and innovation,” Mr. McCarthy said.

The California law is somewhat similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect last year. One difference is that the California measure includes more provisions allowing consumers to opt out of data sharing as opposed to forcing them to opt in before continuing to use online sites.

Passage of the California law helped spur the formation in the U.S. Senate of a working group last year that is drafting what its members hope will be landmark data-privacy legislation.

Composed of members of the Commerce Committee, the group includes the panel’s chairman, Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) Sens. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii). The group this year added two more high-profile lawmakers: Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, now the GOP whip, and Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat.

“My goal is a strong law that’s stronger than California, that’s more workable to innovation than Europe,” Mr. Wicker said Thursday. “And that it’s so acceptable to all parties that we can avoid a patchwork of state-by-state.”

Staff members from the working group are expected to meet Friday to discuss the draft legislation. Mr. Wicker hopes to introduce a bill before the Senate’s August recess, a goal primarily driven by a desire to get the bill passed before the California law takes effect in January, according to a GOP aide familiar with the discussions.

Mr. Blumenthal, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel, said there was “very powerful support for privacy legislation across party lines because most people don’t regard it in any way as a partisan issue.”

Still, there will be plenty of details for lawmakers to tangle over, in particular the interaction between any new federal legislation and the California state law.

“That’s a big part of this whole discussion—how can we do this in a way that respects the states that do want the strong laws?” said Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), who is working on legislation focused on online privacy protections for children under the age of 16.

Some lawmakers were skeptical that Congress would be able to agree on an approach to privacy guidelines.

“I hope that we’ll pass something, but you know, we’ll see,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), a freshman lawmaker who has introduced two bipartisan privacy bills of his own since taking office in January. “I don’t know how much enthusiasm there is for that on the Republican side right now,” he said.

Technology companies have warmed to a national privacy law as the implementation of the California law approaches, hoping a federal rule would be less stringent and provide a sole set of guidelines. Supporters of big tech companies have warned against regulation that could threaten competition. in the sector.

Some Democrats have called for taking more forceful action to limit the power of the biggest technology companies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who is running for president, called in March for breaking up some companies, including Amazon.com Inc.,Google and Facebook, saying they have too much power over the economy, and urged regulation of Google and Facebook as utilities.

Mr. McCarthy said he disagreed with the idea of breaking up big tech companies.

“If you break up a company, it does nothing about privacy,” he said. “That’s going to take away innovation.”

Separately, the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel last week opened a bipartisan investigation into tech companies and antitrust laws. The congressional probe comes as the Justice Department prepares to investigate Google, while the Federal Trade Commission plans to focus on the dominance of Facebook. In addition, Apple and Amazon could come under scrutiny.

Photo: Al Drago for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com or Lindsay Wise at lindsay.wise.com

Appeared in the June 21, 2019, print edition as ‘House GOP Leader Backs a Data-Privacy Law.’