Guest Commentary

Josh Hawley defends Missourians’ right to privacy

Sen. Hawley grills Google executives about consumer privacy

Sen. Josh Hawley questioned Google executives about consumer privacy during a hearing held on March 12, 2019.
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Sen. Josh Hawley questioned Google executives about consumer privacy during a hearing held on March 12, 2019.

Missourians care deeply about the right to privacy. The Show-Me State was the first in the nation to impose explicit constitutional protection of electronic data — text messages, e-mails, cloud files and the like — from warrantless searches and seizure. No state does more to protect its residents’ personal information from unauthorized collection by third party sources.

But some privacy issues that profoundly affect the people of this state are outside of the Missouri State Capitol’s control. They require action from congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. That is why U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley’s leadership on the Senate Judiciary Committee is so critical and appreciated.

Case in point: the letter he recently sent to the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that Facebook is appropriately penalized for selling tens of millions of Americans’ private information to data miners, including Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm that received at least $12,000 from Missouri political campaigns for our residents’ personal information.

The FTC is already expected to slap Facebook with a penalty for violating the antitrust agreement, known as a consent decree, that it agreed to with the Department of Justice in 2011 because of past privacy violations. However, Hawley detailed in his letter why he does not believe that the FTC’s pending action will be enough. He noted that Facebook anticipates that it will receive a penalty of only $3-5 billion, which is at least $10 billion less than it made in profit in the last quarter alone.

Given his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hawley’s calls for “tough accountability measures and penalties for individual executives and managers” will go a long way — both in influencing FTC policy and protecting the American people from further abuse. While some are questioning his preferred remedy for this problem, history shows that financial punishments levied in consent decrees succeed in restraining predatory behavior.

For example, an array of Missouri businesses, from Eclipse Bar and Grill in Kansas City to Broadway Oyster Bar in St. Louis, have assured the federal government in a letter that the Justice Department’s consent decrees governing the music industry’s two leading monopolies — ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and BMI, Broadcast Music, Inc. — have succeeded in controlling their anti-competitive price gouging. ASCAP and BMI’s games of the past, which included using their high market share as leverage to unfairly raise the cost of performing rights licenses on small businesses, have largely faded away. That’s because the consent decrees’ punishments for their foul play have been hefty enough to discourage past predatory behavior from becoming a continued, standard practice.

Hawley has the foresight to see that if his constituents’ privacy is to be protected, the FTC’s punishments need to be as tough on with Facebook as the Department of Justice’s are on ASCAP and BMI, because what he called “broken and under-enforced orders” are as useless as having no orders at all. The anticipated slap on the wrist for Facebook is simply not enough to reverse the broken status quo.

For things to change, the FTC’s punishment needs to match Facebook’s violation, just as it does for ASCAP, BMI and the subjects of other consent decrees. Hawley makes that abundantly clear.

Given the FTC’s longstanding good relationship with the Senate Judiciary Committee, there is certainly reason to be optimistic that stronger punishments for Facebook will soon be on the horizon. And given how many calls members of the Missouri General Assembly have received about the security of their personal information from Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Hawley cannot be commended enough for his leadership in fixing this matter. As one of the first Republicans to endorse Hawley’s candidacy, I’m proud of his allegiance to principle and his constituents.

Mark Comfort is the 5th District GOP state committeeman from St. Louis.