Is Big Data to Barack Obama what Big Oil was to George W. Bush?

Obama and the elite of Silicon Valley share a toast in February 2011.
Obama and the elite of Silicon Valley share a toast in February 2011.
Image: White House
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This item has been corrected.

When the White House unveiled its new privacy bill of rights, almost exactly one year ago, the event was heralded by one consumer advocate as “the clearest articulation of the right to privacy by a US president in history.” But attention quickly shifted to the the bill’s limitations. Users could opt out of targeted ads, but this alone wouldn’t end ad tracking. The bill relied too heavily on voluntary commitments by advertisers like Google and Facebook. And though the bill was strong on “rights,” it lacked details on implementation and enforcement. Critics also pointed out that the American Commerce Department, which represents American businesses—not consumers—had spearheaded the bill and was in charge of developing the policies meant to enforce it.

Now, one year later, as Europe reviews its own wide-ranging privacy legislation for implementation, Silicon Valley is sending hordes of lobbyists across the Atlantic. And the Commerce Department is at it again, leading the charge in Brussels.

Two requirements in the proposed EU laws stick like thorns in the side of the American data collection industry: one, that tech firms receive prior approval (i.e., informed consent) from users before collecting their personal data, and two, that the refusal of data tracking be an accessible and irreversible option. Silicon Valley, which has built a thriving global business around targeted ads and data brokering, is understandably antsy.

Jeff Chester, who directs the Center for Digital Democracy, told Quartz: “By requiring such opt-in and user control, the EU challenges the very successful business model pioneered by Google, Yahoo and used by Facebook and others—data collection practices that are largely non-transparent and out of effective user control.”

To the growing indignation of European officials (paywall), lawmakers in Brussels are lobbied by five or six different American law firms every single day. And the American government is adding fuel to fire. A recent statement from the US Mission to the EU urges Europe to be “more flexible” about issues such as consent from internet users. “Interoperability of our respective privacy regimes is critical to maintaining our extraordinary economic relationship,” it said. For its part, the American Chamber of Commerce has been organizing events in Brussels and Strasbourg, leading one European official to tell the New York Times that, “My impression is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Commerce Department are mostly just following the interests of Silicon Valley.”

This lobbying highlights a relationship between technology companies and the American government that echoes the close ties between the energy sector and the previous administration of George W. Bush. Silicon Valley was an important source of campaign finance for the Obama presidential campaign: Employees of tech firms donated seven times as much to the Democratic candidate as to his opponent, Mitt Romney. (Big Oil, by contrast, gave eight times as much to Romney as to Obama.) Obama’s election victories in 2008 and 2012 hinged at least to some degree on his campaign’s groundbreaking use of technology and social media. And the president’s second-term agenda, such as his proposal to ease immigration requirements for high-skilled workers, has drawn applause from technology executives.

There is also the revolving door between Washington and Silicon Valley. Marne Levine, a former Obama economic adviser, now works for Facebook. Jared Cohen, the State Department official who pioneered social media as a tool of American foreign policy (as he did during the Arab Spring), works for Google, as does Colin Crowell, a former adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates, among other things, the infrastructure that transport internet communications. Twitter hired Katie Stanton, who worked on innovation policy for the State Department. And the door swings both ways: Andrew McLaughlin, a top Google executive, served as deputy US Chief Technology Officer for two years.

But given that the internet industry is one of the most vibrant and innovative sectors in the US and that the federal government today is replete with smart, younger, tech-savvy Americans, intimacy between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley is “anything but abnormal,” says Lee Tien, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Tien nevertheless cautions that the Commerce Department’s involvement with privacy legislation, both in America and abroad, signals a commitment to business interests first, and consumers second.

Chester, the consumer advocate, argued recently that the Obama administration is “working to protect the US data lobby.” He told Quartz, “One of the US’s few growth areas is stealing people’s data. So the US is arguing that the EU should not enact strong baseline rules requiring citizens to provide affirmative consent for such critical uses as profiling and [instead] adopt its weak, industry-friendly approach based primarily on self-regulation.”

To be fair, the case made by American officials for less stringent EU rules indicates not only their closeness to the tech industry, but also the more laissez-faire American mindset. In October 2012, Cameron Kerry, the US Commerce Department’s General Counsel, told the European Parliament (pdf, p. 8) that the legislation would vest the European Commission with too much authority to prescribe uniform technical standards for achieving data protection. He said, “We [in the United States] believe that government policymakers and regulators must approach technical standards with a measure of humility that recognizes the limits of their ability to keep pace with technological change.”

And Tien, the EFF lawyer, also suggests that the American government isn’t putting pressure on Europe solely for the sake of American business. “You have to think about the phenomenon of Big Data, how enthralling that vision is,” he says. “The way people in Silicon Valley talk about harnessing Big Data isn’t just about economic incentives, it’s about solving problems, curing cancer, solving the world’s ills. It’s ultimately quite different from railing against the Patriot Act. It’s a kinder, gentler surveillance.” But still, Tien said, the American government, and Silicon Valley lobbyists, “should own up to the real privacy issues Big Data raises.”

Correction (February 7): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Cameron Kerry as the General Counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce; he is in fact the General Counsel for the US Commerce Department.