Guest speakers were Brad Weltman, director of privacy and public policy at Meta, and Jessica Rich, former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and former head of the FTC’s division of privacy and identity theft. Their discussion was moderated by Stuart Ingis ’93, chair at the law firm Venable and co-chair to its eCommerce, privacy, and cybersecurity segment.
In her response to the question about regulations, Rich noted that the current state of privacy standards is chaotic. Europe has its own policies, five different U.S. states have each created slightly different laws, and the FTC wants to develop a nationwide rule.
“All the chaos proves that we do need a national standard so consumers are protected in every state, so people know what the rules are and can be educated about them. The only one who can truly do that is Congress,” Rich said.
From an industry perspective, Weltman reasoned that companies desire consistency and a nationwide standard because keeping up with various privacy standards across different regions is time-consuming and costly for bigger companies and impossible for smaller ones.
Regarding the current lack of privacy regulations, Ingis stated, “In a large part, it’s because what was a nascent technology that nobody used or heard of is now mature, and problems that didn’t exist when it started now exist and need to be regulated.”
He argued that not implementing privacy laws in the past have allowed industry to flourish.
Rich disagreed: “There are certain things that happened that aren’t necessarily wonderful for the economy and technology. There are companies that aren’t creating wonderful new products or services; they’re selling sensitive data for all sorts of purposes. There’s a huge variation in the benefits that companies provide to consumers.”
Weltman concurred by adding: “We all understand location is a sensitive data point. Twenty-five years ago, if we’d said location is sensitive, no company should use location, you wouldn’t have UberEATS, you wouldn’t have Google Maps. There was a shifting evolution, and these services wouldn’t have evolved in the same way.”
Shifting the discussion, Ingis asked what the model for data regulation should be.
“The problem is that once data is collected, it takes on a life of its own if there’s no control over it. What’s needed are restrictions on how data is used beyond its original purpose,” Rich said, adding that the original four principles of the first proposal for a privacy law include notice of information practices, choices for consumers, access to collected data, and security measures. Newer concepts include deletion rights, correction rights, and accountability mechanisms.
Notice and choice meant the onus of responsibility fell onto the consumer. However, today some laws require consumers to “opt-in” to sharing data instead of needing to “opt-out.” Weltman commented on this, saying, “Everyone’s gone to a website, seen the cookie banner, and just click-click-clicked yes for consenting to it. We should think about reserving consent for more meaningful moments.”
He also noted the tension between the benefits of targeted advertising, like supporting the vast array of content on the Internet, with its privacy downsides.
Previous topics have included the war in Ukraine, income inequality causes, politics across the aisle, and the process of governing under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
From here, the panelists took questions from attendees, engaging with their thoughts and ideas regarding privacy issues. With privacy concerns becoming ever more important and relevant, meaningful and deep discussions are key to understanding this issue of our time.
Common Ground is a multi-format program to help prepare students for active citizenship. Designed to explore cross-boundary political thought and complex social issues, Common Ground brings respected thought leaders to Hamilton to participate in small classroom dialogues and large event discussions. Topics intertwined with the College’s curriculum are chosen to foster critical thinking and holistic examination of difficult and often contentious national and global policy issues. The College is grateful to Mary Helen and Robert Morris ’76, P’16, P’17 for their generous support of Common Ground.