Biden urged to protect consumers from tech giants

Sunday, January 31, 2021

As Democrat Joe Biden is sworn in as U.S. president, digital rights groups are calling on him and legislators to curb the power of tech firms and guard consumers' online privacy.

Advocacy groups want Biden to ban facial recognition technology on his first day - which critics say can perpetuate discriminatory policing - and not to appoint individuals with extensive ties to big tech firms to his administration.

"We are very much looking forward to the opportunity President-elect has to lead the way on protecting privacy, and bring the tech companies abusing privacy practices to account,” said Jane Chung, an advocate with consumer group Public Citizen.

"We need regulators that protect consumers, workers, and communities of color against predatory surveillance and privacy malpractice - and represent the interests of the people, not corporations."

Privacy concerns are mounting amid data breaches and public discomfort over how information is collected and used. U.S. regulators have imposed hefty fines on Facebook Inc and Google Inc’s YouTube unit for privacy violations.

Public Citizen and 10 other U.S.-based digital rights and racial justice groups also want the new administration to create an independent Data Protection Authority and back a federal privacy law during Biden's first 100 days in office.

The U.S. lacks a comprehensive digital privacy law, but both Democratic and Republican lawmakers proposed legislation in 2019 to protect consumers and ensure that companies collect the minimum amount of personal data needed for their purpose.

The state of California enacted a sweeping privacy law in 2018, often seen as a model for a possible federal framework, which Biden's chief of staff, Bruce Reed, helped negotiate with the tech industry and legislators.

Digital rights groups are scrutinizing the personnel Biden is tapping for his work on technology issues, as antitrust enforcement has emerged as an issue the Biden transition team has been paying attention to.  

The Department of Justice (DOJ) sued Alphabet's Google on Oct. 20, accusing the $1 trillion company of dominating search and advertising, and the Federal Trade Commission is also pursuing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook.

Google has broadly denied wrongdoing and said that its search engine and other products are dominant because consumers prefer them.

Facebook's general counsel Jennifer Newstead has said antitrust laws do not exist to punish "successful companies" and that WhatsApp and Instagram have succeeded because Facebook invested billions of dollars in growing the apps.  

Renata Hesse, who has had several stints at the Justice Department since 2002, held private sector roles and advised on matters involving Amazon and Google, is among the top contenders for the top antitrust job.    

On Monday, 40 advocacy groups sent a letter sent to Biden, asking him to "avoid appointing to key antitrust enforcement positions individuals who have served as lawyers, lobbyists, or consultants for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google".

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some privacy advocates see vigorous antitrust investigation as a key lever to promote greater digital privacy for consumers.

"We need people at DOJ ... who will scrutinize the tech industry and push forward with various ongoing antitrust investigations and lawsuits," said David Segal, head of Demand Progress, a digital rights group that signed Monday's letter.

"But recent reporting indicates that people with close ties to the industry are under serious consideration for key posts."

(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit