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Reuters/Aaron Bernstein
When innovation meets regulation.
POT, KETTLE

Silicon Valley executives are meeting to tackle privacy problems they helped create

By Simone Stolzoff

Executives from large tech companies will meet in San Francisco today (June 27) to discuss how to better protect consumer privacy. The meeting, first reported by Axios, was organized by the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group whose members include Facebook, Google, and Apple.

The council will discuss a potential national data protection policy, which the Trump administration has begun to explore in response to the growing concern that companies aren’t doing enough to protect consumer data online. Unlike Europe, which as of last month has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), data protection in the US is sector specific—consumer health data is regulated differently from, say, financial data.

The meeting comes at a time when tensions between Silicon Valley and Washington have been in the national spotlight. Employees at GoogleMicrosoft, and Salesforce have signed petitions to protest their employers’ government contracts. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley executives have been called to testify in front of Congress about their companies’ data collection and protection practices.

Now, Silicon Valley is trying to get out in front of protecting consumers’ privacy before the government intervenes. The ability to collect and package user data for advertisers is not only important to the business models of platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, it is the business model. So, despite the companies’ PR incentive to appear strong on privacy, they also have an economic incentive to make sure regulations don’t impair their ability to make money.

In Washington, Gail Slater, a special assistant to the president with the National Economic Council, has been exploring what a federal data protection policy might look like. Slater is no stranger to the tech industry agenda. Before she became a tech policy advisor, she served as the general counsel at the Internet Association, which represents tech firms such as Google and Facebook. But despite hints that the Trump Administration is exploring a federal data protection policy, a law as comprehensive as GDPR is unlikely.

Europe treats data protection as a fundamental human right (the right to data protection is sandwiched between right to marry and the right to have a private family life in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights), whereas the US is reluctant to pass regulation that might stymie innovation. Despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s claim EU privacy laws would be applied globally “in spirit,” there is little enforcement in the United States to hold his claim to account.

“Just because Europe has taken a comprehensive approach doesn’t mean our different approach is deficient,” Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, told Axios. “And just because Europe is early doesn’t mean it’s best or final. But we should always be thinking about how we evolve to make sure consumers have trust in our products.”