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Will 2020 be the year of a federal data privacy law?

Some lawmakers had hoped to finish a federal data privacy law in 2019, but it just didn’t happen. Now they’re hoping 2020 will be different.

A group of lawmakers had been working together toward a comprehensive bill for much of the year, yet the bipartisan bill that many had hoped for never surfaced.

“Oh, it's frustrating. Oh, it's really frustrating,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

In his first year in the Senate, Hawley has emerged as one of big tech’s most vocal critics within the Republican party.

“I have been saying now for months that they should not allow a ‘comprehensive’ bill to get in the way of actually getting real things done,” said Hawley.

Toward the end of the year, ideas started to make it on to paper. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democratic senator on the Commerce Committee, released the a Democratic data privacy bill in November. Shortly after, committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) released a discussion draft and fact sheet of Republican priorities. The full committee held a hearing to discuss the proposals.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) — who are both on the Commerce Committee and were part of the Senate working group — are still attempting to develop privacy legislation together.

Momentum taking shape

Going into 2020, lawmakers, the tech industry and consumer advocates say this could be the year Congress actually gets a bill across the finish line.

This year Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg each wrote op-eds detailing his vision for data privacy. As Facebook came under mounting scrutiny, Zuckerberg privately met with lawmakers and publicly urged them to put rules of the road in place. The Business Roundtable, made up of some of the nation’s largest companies, has also called on Congress to act.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), another outspoken critic of big tech, told Yahoo Finance as other countries and states put privacy laws in place, he’s seen a shift in big tech’s attitude toward regulation.

“They realized, ‘Oh my gosh, federal legislation might be the right way out’,” said Warner.

The Internet Association, a trade group representing tech companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, has released its principles for federal data privacy legislation. The group launched a campaign this fall, pressuring Congress to act.

“We've been on the Hill day in and day out,” Michael Bloom, Internet Association’s Senior Vice President of Global Government Affairs, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

“The time is right for a very, very strong federal privacy protection for the consumers and users of our platforms and services. And that’s really what our focus has been, and I think there's real appetite for that on the Hill. And that's why you're starting to see some of the momentum sort of take shape now, sadly, right before everyone goes their separate ways for the holidays,” he added.

California’s privacy law — set to go into effect on Jan. 1 — could have contributed to that end-of-the-year momentum. Congress likely felt more urgency, as the first of the year drew closer.

In his prepared remarks at a December hearing, Wicker pointed to the California law, Europe’s GDPR and “near-daily reports of data breaches and misuse” as reasons to act quickly.

“...It is clear that Congress needs to act now to provide stronger and more meaningful data protections to consumers and address the privacy risks that threaten the prosperity of the nation’s digital economy,” said Wicker.

One of the issues lawmakers are trying to work out centers on preemption. While some think a federal data privacy law should trump state laws, others argue Congress shouldn’t keep states from enacting tougher standards.

Settling that question could “break the logjam,” Warner said.

“If we can deal with this preemption issue, I think the other things may start to fall in place and we actually may end up with a larger piece of legislation rather than smaller,” said Warner. “Big tech wants a single national standard. I get that. I think in a certain way that makes some sense, but then it's got to be a standard that's high enough and strong enough that there'll be meaningful enforcement.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) REUTERS/Erin Scott

After a data privacy hearing earlier this month, Cantwell told Yahoo Finance the biggest sticking point in negotiations would be enforcement.

“I hope...the perfect won't be the enemy of the good”

Hawley and Warner have each introduced several privacy-related bills. They worked together on legislation that would require tech companies to put a price on consumers’ data.

“We should have a right to know not only what data is collected about us — and nothing about Facebook and Google are free, they are giant collectors of information that they monetize — but should be able to know what data is being collected and how much that's worth on a value proposition,” said Warner.

Warner would like to see that bill — along with provisions on data portability and political ads — included in federal privacy legislation. Hawley said he thinks “the basic right not to be tracked” and additional privacy protections for children should be in the final bill.

“It would challenge much of many of the business practices of big tech, the predatory business practices that I think is a common sense place to start,” said Hawley. “Let's stop tech companies from advertising to kids and tracking kids online. I think those are great places to start.”

Still, Hawley argued lawmakers should not wait until they agree on everything.

“I hope once more that the perfect won't be the enemy of the good,” he said. “I hope that in the next year — still in this Congress — that [the] Commerce [Committee] and others will say, ‘You know what? We can get some things done.’ It doesn't have to be this massive bill. We can get some things done that by the way, will make huge changes.”

Bloom told Yahoo Finance he’s hopeful Congress is able to put a bill on the president’s desk before all of Washington’s attention shifts to Election Day.

“[We] are going to keep the full court press going and we are making it a top priority going into 2020, and I feel pretty good about this, sort-of, momentum we're seeing right now on a bipartisan basis on both sides of the Capitol,” said Bloom.

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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