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After UK, Big Tech now feels the heat in US

WASHINGTON: Momentum is gaining in Washington for a privacy law that could sharply rein in the ability of the largest technology companies to collect and make money off people’s personal data.

A national law, the first of its kind in the US, could allow people to see or prohibit the use of their data. Companies would need permission to release such information. If it takes effect, a law would also likely shrink Big Tech’s profits from its lucrative business of making personal data available to advertisers so they can pinpoint specific consumers to target.

Behind the drive for a law is rising concern over the compromise of private data held by Facebook, Google and other tech giants that have earned riches by aggregating consumer information. The industry traditionally has been lightly regulated and has resisted closer oversight as a threat to its culture of freewheeling innovation.

Support for a privacy law is part of a broader effort by regulators and lawmakers to lessen the domination of companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. Some, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, have called for the tech giants to be split up.

The Donald Trump White House has said in the past that it could endorse a broad data privacy law.

The big tech companies have been nervously eyeing a tough privacy law taking effect next year in California. That measure will allow Californians to see the personal data being collected on them and where it’s being distributed and to forbid the sale of it. With some exceptions, consumers could also request that their personal information be deleted entirely.

Whatever federal privacy law eventually emerges is expected to be less stringent than the California measure and to supersede it. As a result, the technology industry is trying to help shape any national restrictions.

“This is the first time ever that the industry wants legislation,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. “The industry is terrified.”

On Tuesday, a House committee will press Google and Facebook executives about another urgent concern involving Big Tech: Whether they’re doing enough to curb the spread of hate crimes and white nationalism through online platforms. The judiciary committee hearing follows a series of violent incidents fueled in part by online communication.

Facebook, used by 2-billion-plus people including over 200 million in the US, has been a particular lightning rod for industry critics. Having had its reputation tarnished over data privacy lapses, a tide of hate speech and a spread of disinformation that allowed Russian agents to target propaganda campaigns, Facebook appears ready to embrace a national privacy law.

Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published a column last month in the Washington Post calling for tighter regulations to protect consumer data, control harmful content and ensure election integrity and data portability.

The tech giants’ problematic relationship with advertisers was spotlighted by action regulators took last month. The Department of Housing and Urban Development filed civil charges against Facebook, accusing it of allowing landlords and real estate brokers to exclude certain racial or ethnic groups from seeing ads for houses and apartments. Facebook could face penalties.