STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Senate Democrats have offered a plan to punish tech firms that mishandle people's private information. The legislation proposes fines for companies and offers consumers the right to learn which of their personal data companies hold. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell authored the bill and is on the line this morning from her hometown of Edmonds, Wash. Senator, good morning.
MARIA CANTWELL: Good morning.
INSKEEP: If this were to become law, what right would I have that I didn't before?
CANTWELL: You, in a digital age, should have the right to control your data - that is, what information is collected about you, what information might be passed on or sold to a third party, the ability to have your information deleted once it might be collected, you decide you don't like that organization or that entity and to make sure that no discriminatory practices are used against you. We live in an era now where lots of data is being collected. And we believe consumers should have a rights.
INSKEEP: I like the idea of telling a company, delete my data. But I'm thinking about the complexities of this in practice. For example, I believe the legislation says that companies have to get permission before they collect biometric information from me, like an eye scan or something. That sounds really good. But we've seen recently this change where websites have to ask permission to track our activity. And essentially, you just have to constantly click yes, yes, yes. And the exact same thing happens. Is it really that much better?
CANTWELL: Well, first of all, we need to have strong penalties. And the way the law currently works is the FTC - the Federal Trade Commission - does investigate what are harmful - I mean, practices that companies are pursuing. But it's not a bright line. It is - basically amounts to the warning the first time and then penalties for not disclosing to consumers. We want to shift that.
INSKEEP: But I guess my point is they just end up doing what they want to do. I mean, they...
CANTWELL: Well, that's why you need a strong federal law.
CANTWELL: And the strong federal law has to have severe penalties and a bright line. We're also saying that consumers should have the right to sue if companies either breach their data or disclose information to third parties when they have not given permission and a consumer has been harmed.
So by creating a strong federal framework where you declare that consumers have privacy rights, that they should be able to control their data, you create a harmful and deceptive practice law and you give the FTC and the citizens the right to take action against these companies, we think that creates a bright federal line.
INSKEEP: I wonder if there's another challenge here because you have to ask, what fine or even civil penalty is large enough to deter a company that may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars or even a trillion dollars?
CANTWELL: Well, Steve, you asked the right question. It's $126 billion just for online advertising. It is starting to dwarf all other aspects of advertising. And now when people can derive information about you and use it in ways to almost profile or track you, it has become a real threat to people's personal privacy.
We already knew that identity theft was a problem. Now digital identity theft in the context of taking people's data and information and tying it has become very threatening. And so one of the rights we believe you should have is the same rights you have on anti-discrimination. Just to say - so a company could be fined or sued for taking your identity and discriminating against you.
INSKEEP: Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state, thank you so much.
CANTWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.