Privacy-minded U.S. lawmakers divided over giving more powers to FTC

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic and Republican lawmakers both stressed the need for bipartisan privacy legislation on Wednesday but seemed divided on how willing they were to strengthen the Federal Trade Commission, which is expected to be tasked with enforcing an eventual law.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joseph Simons testifies at Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the proposed budgets for the FCC and the FTC on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

At the hearing of a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee, FTC Chairman Joe Simons and one of the four commissioners were asked about an expected settlement with Facebook Inc for violating a privacy consent decree and tightening oversight of users’ privacy. Both declined comment.

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating allegations that Facebook failed to live up to a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy by inappropriately sharing information belonging to 87 million users with the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook said last month the settlement could cost between $3 billion and $5 billion.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, was one of several people who favored increased funding for the Federal Trade Commission as well as stronger rule-making authority as part of a bill to protect users’ privacy online.

The top Republican on the panel, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, also said that she would support a national standard for data privacy and wanted to hold companies accountable for violations.

But she worried about giving more power to the agency, saying she did not want to the FTC to be converted into “a massive rule-making regime.”

Congress has long been expected to take up privacy legislation after California passed a strict privacy law that goes into effect on Jan. 1.

The issue is of huge concern to companies across the economy but much of the heat has focused on Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook, Twitter Inc and other free online services, which rely on advertising for revenue and use data collected on users to more effectively target those ads.

FTC Chairman Simons, backed by Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra, urged that any legislation have clear and specific rules.

Simons asked for enhanced rule-making authority for the agency to enforce any privacy legislation but pressed for it to be limited to the one issue.

“Please do not do it. Do not give us broad rule-making authority. Give us targeted rule-making authority,” he said. “The last thing that we want is for you to dump that question on us.”

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker