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Gillibrand proposes creating new digital privacy agency

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wants to create an entirely new federal agency dedicated to protecting online privacy, she said in a proposal released Thursday morning. 

In her first major policy proposal since dropping out of the 2020 presidential race, Gillibrand is calling for the creation of a “Data Protection Agency” tasked with creating new rules around how tech companies are allowed to collect and use personal information about their users. Gillibrand’s legislation would empower the agency to investigate, subpoena and go after companies accused of violating online privacy. 

The agency would take tech oversight away from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the century-old federal agency currently tasked with overseeing privacy and antitrust issues. Gillibrand’s proposal says the FTC has “failed” to act on some of the most pressing privacy issues of the day, including online marketing to children. 

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“As the data privacy crisis looms larger over the everyday lives of Americans, the government has a responsibility to step forward and give Americans meaningful protection over their data and how it’s being used,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “The U.S. needs a new approach to privacy and data protection.

“We cannot allow our freedoms to be trampled over by private companies that value profits over people,” she continued, “and the Data Protection Agency would do that with expertise and resources to create and meaningfully enforce data protection rules and digital rights.”

The U.S. is virtually the only developed nation without an independent privacy watchdog.  

Gillibrand’s proposal is unlikely to move forward in the Senate, where a group of key Republicans and Democrats have been locked in tense negotiations over the country’s first comprehensive online privacy law for over a year. The lawmakers have largely shot down the idea of creating an entirely new agency, instead proposing more resources for the FTC.

Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) last year also proposed creating a new digital protection agency, laying out parameters similar to Gillibrand’s plan, but their proposal was quickly shot down by Democrats and Republicans alike. 

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Supporters of Gillibrand’s proposal accused the FTC of “tepid” responses to egregious privacy violations and standing “idly” by as tech companies have amassed reams of sometimes sensitive personal information about their millions of users, including children.

“The U.S. confronts a privacy crisis,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, the policy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading digital privacy group that has been pushing for the creation of an entirely new agency. “Our personal data is under assault. Congress must establish a data protection agency. Senator Gillibrand has a bold, ambitious proposal to safeguard the privacy of Americans.” 

Gillibrand’s Data Protection Agency would be an executive agency with a director appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The agency would create rules and orders around how to carry out federal privacy laws. 

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