How politics works, part 97: Telecoms industry throws a fundraiser for US senator night before he oversees, er, a telecoms privacy hearing

Nothing like a little reminder of who's really in charge

The chairman of a US Senate committee mulling privacy protections will be thrown a reelection fundraiser by, er, the privacy-trampling telecoms industry literally the day before a key hearing.

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) heads up the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which will next Wednesday hold a hearing titled "Policy Principles for a Federal Data Privacy Framework in the United States."

That hearing is being closely watched as a possible starting point for new laws in America that would introduce European-style GDPR-like obligations for telcos, tech giants, and other corporations to safeguard people's sensitive and private data. Pressure for such rules has been growing in recent months following a series of high-profile data abuse scandals.

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But in an unpleasant reminder of how politics works in Washington DC, The Hill revealed on Friday that AT&T's political action committee and telco trade group USTelecom will host a fundraiser for Wicker literally the night before that hearing at the Capital Grille restaurant.

It costs $1,500 a seat to attend the event, $2,500 to sponsor it, and $5,000 to co-host the shindig, and all proceeds will go to Wicker's political action campaign (PAC) focused on his reelection.

It is money well spent. The witness list for the hearing has already received significant criticism for being clearly biased in favor of industry – which loves monetizing citizens' private information – and hence against strong data privacy laws in the US.

President of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Marc Rotenberg told Politico that it was "unconscionable for the Senate Commerce Committee to hold a hearing on consumer privacy and to not invite a single consumer privacy advocate to testify." EPIC has long argued for improved data privacy laws.


Likewise the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) have both gone public with their frustration that despite years of advocacy on this very topic (or more likely because of it) neither they nor any other supporter of data privacy laws has been invited to give testimony. "Senator Wicker’s initial witness lineup makes a mockery of protecting the privacy of consumers," said CDD exec director Jeffrey Chester.

The CDD has been focused on this issue for a long time, highlighted why there needs to be a new federal data privacy agency to deal with the modern digital era, and produced a framework for members of Congress over how new privacy-protecting laws could be structured.

There is widespread support for new laws to cover private data with voters and in both parties in Congress, despite a concerted and successful effort by tech companies over the past decade to leave the issue to industry self-regulation.

That self-regulation has clearly failed, and so the focus for lobbyists has turned to influencing any forthcoming legislation in their favor. Currently listed as witnesses for the hearing are:

  • Michael Beckerman: CEO of the Internet Association, which represents companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.
  • Brian Dodge: COO of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which has persistently argued that self-regulation is the best solution to data privacy.
  • Brian Dodge: CEO of the BSA, aka The Software Alliance, which was established and largely steered by Microsoft.
  • Co-chair of the 21st Century Privacy Coalition, John Leibowitz, which, despite its name, is in fact a lobbying group set up by the telecom industry that successfully led a campaign to overturn privacy rules on ISPs.
  • Randall Rothenberg: CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which was a fierce opponent of data privacy laws until it suddenly changed its mind in December and argued that there needs to be "sensible" privacy legislation.
  • Woody Hartzog: A professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University School of Law, seemingly the only truly independent witness at the hearing.

In other words, a bunch of top brass likely to be against privacy legislation that gives netizens rights over their own data. The good news, however, is that Senator Wicker can expect a healthy boost to his re-election campaign fund.

We've asked his office for comment, and will update this story as necessary if we hear back. In the meantime, we note that, just last year, Senator Wicker banked nearly $200,000 in political donations from telcos and ISPs, and internet and electronics companies. ®

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