April 30, 2019 / 8:53 PM / 24 days ago

U.S. lawmakers struggle to draft digital privacy bill

WASHINGTON, April 30 (Reuters) - Lawmakers drafting a bill to create rules governing online privacy hope to have a discussion draft complete by late May with a Senate committee vote during the summer, but disputes are likely to push that timetable back, according to sources knowledgeable about the matter.

Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Brian Schatz, with the recent addition of Maria Cantwell, are leading the effort to draft the measure along with Republican Senators Jerry Moran and Roger Wicker.

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune, who chairs the Commerce Committee until January, has joined the working group, Thune confirmed.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation holds a hearing on the matter on Wednesday.

The issue is of huge concern to advertisers and tech companies like Facebook and Alphabet's Google, which provide free services to consumers and derive revenues from advertising targeted to consumers based on preferences identified via online data collection.

Republicans hope to complete a draft of the bill by the end of May so it can be introduced, debated and voted out of committee by July before Congress leaves for its August recess, according to the sources knowledgeable about the matter.

But that may be delayed if they fail to reach agreement with Democrats who are determined to ensure that the bill does not weaken, and then pre-empt, a California online privacy bill that goes into effect next year.

One dispute that has arisen is whether consumers whose privacy is violated by a company should be allowed to sue that company, with Democrats pushing for this to be allowed, according to one sources familiar with the discussions.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation advocacy group has this as one of its highest priorities in data privacy legislation.

At least one key Republican disagrees.

"Senator Moran has heard serious concerns from the business community, particularly the small business community, that any private right of action would have serious ramifications in their sustainability. The senator is taking these considerations into account as he negotiates federal privacy legislation," said a representative for the senator in an email statement.

Democratic support for the privacy legislation is key since the measure will also have to pass the U.S. House of Representatives to become law.

California's law, which will affect any major company with an online presence, requires companies with data on more than 50,000 people to allow consumers to view the data they have collected on them, request deletion of data, and opt out of having the data sold to third parties. Each violation carries a $7,500 fine.

A privacy bill is one of the few pieces of potential legislation that lobbyists believe has a decent chance of becoming law because it is a bipartisan concern and does not cost taxpayers money, according to a source following the matter. (Reporting by Diane Bartz, David Shepardson and Alex Alper; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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