The 9/11 terrorist attacks led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The 2008 financial crisis inspired the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Could the backlash against Big Tech result in a standalone government agency devoted to securing our digital data? Marc Rotenberg, a Georgetown Law professor and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is helping lead a push to create that kind of federally funded watchdog.
Facebook, Google, and other Silicon Valley giants have long operated under the tech-friendly purview of the Federal Trade Commission, which doesn’t even have the authority to enforce privacy obligations. Indeed, as consumers grow increasingly alarmed by abuses of private information and high-profile data breaches, the United States remains one of the few advanced Western democracies without a dedicated regulator. “A lot of people in Washington wake up and say, ‘How do we protect our nation’s security? How do we keep our drinking water clean?’ ” says Rotenberg. “But remarkably, there’s really nobody playing that role on privacy.”
A serious but chatty privacy-law junkie who works out of a Dupont Circle office, Rotenberg began backing this idea in 1990. Yes, nearly 30 years ago: Long before Mark Zuckerberg cooked up Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, Rotenberg was promoting greater safeguards for personal information, whether helping draft new privacy laws as counsel for Vermont senator Patrick Leahy or testifying in front of Congress about the benefits of a federal data-privacy agency. Obviously, the need has only grown more urgent as the digital age has dramatically increased the dangers associated with intrusive businesses and cybercriminals.
So what would such an agency look like? In Rotenberg’s view, it would direct the government’s efforts to identify threats to our data, investigate complaints from consumers, and ensure the fair use of tech algorithms. It would also serve as the nation’s chief advocate for stronger data protections.
The idea has gained momentum in recent months, and Rotenberg has been advising the staffs of Congress members Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren on legislation they recently introduced to create a data-protection agency. Despite the long odds that it will be enacted, Rotenberg says data-privacy concerns are—or at least should be—nonpartisan. “And that,” he says, “is a reason to be optimistic.”
This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Washingtonian.