The Political Theater Behind the State of the Union Data Privacy Push

There is a lack of trust on Capitol Hill when it comes to antitrust and technology, even as the pressure to act continues to mount. And Senate Democrats trust Speaker McCarthy to do one thing: protect American-made monopolies.

“I think the sentiment is there, but we’ve had trouble getting Republicans to support legislation in this area,” said Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat.

House Republicans may see common ground with Biden’s new tech-hard approach, but this isn’t a Kumbaya Congress — and the rest of Biden’s State of the Union vision has been presented, at least at first glance, by Republicans as a laundry list of reasons, never with Biden to work together regardless of their mutual tech enemies. “What we saw tonight was Joe Biden talking about unity in one breath, followed by savage beatings on Republicans,” says Florida Republican Congresswoman Kat Cammack. “To me that just goes to show that he is not serious about doing things for the good of the American people.”

After scrapping most of the president’s agenda, Cammack admits there was a bright spot. She calls Biden’s tough message to Silicon Valley “encouraging.”

“We have a really serious problem with our personal data being collected without warranties and being sold without our permission and it’s time we put people’s data and privacy back in their hands.” said Cammack. “So it encouraged me to hear that, but it’s a long way from there.”

Certainly a long way to go, but members of the House of Representatives will only be granted a short two-year window of service and the sprint to 2024 is already underway. Pomp and circumstance was the dress code last night, although some got a different memo. But now the focus is shifting to legislation — and that means bombing and finger-pointing, especially on the eve of a presidential election.

Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to erect guard rails against Silicon Valley’s donor class in recent years, even as both parties continue to denounce the very tech sector Washington policymakers have refused to regulate while Americans’ data mined and shared with law enforcement, or sold to other third parties. Hot air and deflated rhetoric are not options for this 118th Congress, according to Cammack.

“Honestly, I don’t think we have a choice,” says Cammack.

“We have a divided Congress and the Republicans in the House of Representatives take consumer privacy and American privacy seriously, and I think the Democrats do too. The trick is to put together a bill that not only survives Congress but avoids veto when it lands on his desk. So that’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Tech politics is different from other hot topics. They’re simultaneously bipartisan — everyone has a grievance or three about big tech — but they’re also stubbornly stuck in Washington’s rigid partisan patterns. That’s why high-flying rhetoric only goes so far, even when the distrust seems endless. Therefore, the details are often the devil.

“These are tough talks. We all value privacy. We all want to protect our children,” says Senator Kevin Cramer from North Dakota, speaking for many of his Republican compatriots. “But we also like free enterprise. We like innovations. I always think it’s better to break down barriers for competitors than to sort of regulate the incumbents in the economy.”

Senators tend to be slightly older than their counterparts in the House of Representatives (an average of 7.4 years older, according to Pew Research). In recent years, the chamber’s octogenarians have proved the subject of Silicon Valley jokes, but times are changing — at the Senate’s pace.

All five Republicans who captured Senate seats in November are bullish on big tech. While it’s unclear how quickly — or successfully — they will be in their efforts to educate their anti-regulatory Republican elders, Silicon Valley’s congressional critics say Biden was wise to commit to protecting children’s private information focus. It’s a message that resonates far and wide, even on Speaker McCarthy’s Capitol Hill.

“But this problem of targeting our kids with certain messages, using technology to basically collect data and persuading or exploiting their habits is really quite annoying in this modern era,” says Cramer. “I think a lot of us traditionalists need to struggle a little with our basic individualism, with some protection.” The Political Theater Behind the State of the Union Data Privacy Push

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