Maureen K. Ohlhausen:
Will 2023 be the year we make big progress on privacy?

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.

By Maureen K. Ohlhausen

In 1973, the first handheld cell phone call was made on a clunky phone that cost $4,000 at the time. In 1983, Time magazine put a personal computer on its front cover as “Machine of the Year” instead of its usual “Person of the Year.” In the following decades, as these technologies expanded in capability and shrunk in size and cost, they also became ubiquitous as consumers embraced them to improve their daily lives.

But with each new innovation, these technologies generate more data — so much so that by the end of 2022, we collectively created and consumed 94 zettabytes of data. You don’t have to know what a zettabyte is to know that it’s a lot of data. With nearly 60 percent of internet traffic now coming from smartphones, an increasing amount of that data is personal in nature.

As more devices generate more data ever faster, consumers are increasingly concerned about their privacy, and they want to know how government and business can help them protect it. A new year brings a spirit of optimism, and I hope 2023 can be the year we finally get a federal privacy law that matches 50 years of technological progress.   

At Trusted Future, a technology-focused think tank on whose advisory board I sit, we conducted nation-wide surveys and found that while people often love their technologies, they also want bold action from their leaders to better protect their privacy.

In our 2022 report, we found consumers are concerned that companies collect more data than necessary and that they want more transparency and control over their data. They are especially concerned about the way sensitive data – such as location, children’s information and health data – is collected, used and sold. And they overwhelmingly want more privacy progress from both policymakers and the companies that provide technologies or control data.   

The good news is that meaningful progress was made by policymakers last year on legislation to better protect consumer privacy. In 2022 a bipartisan bicameral group of legislators hammered out key differences to make way for legislative agreement. They built on a growing consensus that we need to better protect consumer privacy by minimizing data collection, increasing transparency and user control of data, addressing digital tracking concerns and moving towards a world in which data protection is built in to our technologies by design. There is hope that policymakers can further build on these efforts this year.

Our surveys show that citizens overwhelmingly support continued congressional efforts to advance consumer privacy protections. When asked what technology policy issues they wanted Washington to prioritize, a significant majority (63 percent) said Congress should prioritize legislation that will provide users with additional privacy protections, whether it’s children’s privacy (37 percent) or a broader national privacy framework (26 percent). By contrast, only 3 percent of Americans said tech-related antitrust legislation should be a top legislative priority — which, despite laudable goals, has attracted concern from both Republicans and Democrats who warn it would inadvertently undermine privacy. With a new Congress getting underway, the new year marks a perfect time to continue down this path to progress.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), where I previously served as commissioner and acting chair, is also exploring steps to better protect consumer data privacy. Toward the end of 2022, the Commission released a comprehensive set of questions to obtain public input as it explores a possible new rulemaking on the topic.

But any new broad set of FTC privacy rules would need to be backed by clear statutory authority so they don’t get held up in court, and supported with the financial resources necessary to appropriately enforce them — both of which can only be done by Congress first passing new privacy legislation.  

But even in the absence of comprehensive government action, there are concrete steps companies can take to boost consumer privacy protections. Trusted Future’s survey showed that seven out of 10 consumers want companies to do even more than they already do to protect privacy. They want companies to minimize data collection, use strong encryption; build comprehensive privacy protections into devices, apps and services; and refrain from collecting or selling location and other sensitive information without their consent.

These kinds of privacy steps make good business sense too. Companies today can compete based on better security and privacy protections, transforming trusted technology into a competitive advantage in the marketplace. KPMG found that one-third of organizations in a survey already recognize that increasing consumer trust through steps like better privacy can improve profitability. PricewaterhouseCoopers found that boosting trust in technology can help give companies a competitive advantage, and McKinsey similarly found those companies that are leaders in building digital trust can increase annual growth by 10 percent or more. When companies compete on trust, consumers and businesses can both win.

There are smart, capable people on both sides of the aisle who want to get big things done in Congress. There are also proactive steps our private sector leaders can take today to build even more capable privacy-preserving technologies. Together this could help make sure that 2023 is the year we make big progress on privacy.

Maureen K. Ohlhausen is a member of the advisory board of Trusted Future and a partner at Baker Botts, where she chairs their global antitrust and competition practice. She previously served as the acting chairman and commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).