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'We Are Here to Buy a Senator': Ahead of Data Privacy Hearing, Digital Rights Defenders Target Lavish Telecom-Backed Fundraiser

"This type of corruption is seen as business as usual in Washington, D.C. but it's shameful and it ought to be illegal," one demonstrator said of corporate lobbying

FFTF protest

Data privacy advocates demonstrated on Tuesday night outside of a Big Telecom-hosted fundraiser for a key GOP senator. (Photo: Fight for the Future)

Holding a sign that said, "We are here to buy a senator," digital rights activists with Fight for the Future gathered outside a Washington, D.C. restaurant on Tuesday night to call out the "shameful" lobbying practices used by corporate interests to pressure lawmakers to prioritize special interests over the public good.

"We desperately need real data privacy protections, not fake legislation ghost-written by lobbyists."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future

The group protested a "lavish" telecom industry-backed fundraiser—with tickets that reportedly cost up to $5,000—for Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Sciences, and Transportation, ahead of a hearing about imposing federal data privacy protections.

Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer expressed contempt for the fact that political action committees for AT&T and the trade group USTelecom scheduled the event to precede a Wednesday morning hearing on legislation "that could affect millions of people's basic rights and safety."

"This type of corruption is seen as business as usual in Washington, D.C. but it's shameful and it ought to be illegal," she said.

Gathered outside the pricey fundraiser at The Capital Grille on Tuesday, the digital rights defenders carried a big check from the "First Bank of Big Telecom" made out to Wicker, the committee chairman who has said he wants to impose federal privacy protections "without stifling innovation, investment, or competition." Echoing a larger banner, the check's memo line read, "We are here to buy one senator."

"People are super pissed off about the litany of ways that telecom and Silicon Valley companies have collected, sold, lost, and otherwise abused their personal data," said Greer. "We desperately need real data privacy protections, not fake legislation ghost-written by lobbyists."

On Wednesday morning, data privacy experts appeared to offer testimony before the Senate committee, which has oversight of the Federal Trade Commission, the enforcement agency for consumer privacy and information security protections. The hearing comes amid mounting demands for strong, nationwide standards.

While telecom lobbyists wined and dined Wicker on Tuesday, public advocacy groups and two Democrats on the committee, Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Tom Udall (N.M.), announced a briefing about the "ever-growing online threat to their privacy, welfare, and civil rights," which set to take place on Capitol Hill next week.

Participants in the Monday afternoon briefing will include members of the Privacy and Digital Rights for All coalition, which has introduced the Framework for Comprehensive Privacy Protection And Digital Rights (pdf). The group's primary demands for Congress are:

  1. Enact baseline federal legislation;
  2. Enforce fair information practices;
  3. Establish a data protection agency;
  4. Ensure robust enforcement;
  5. Establish algorithmic governance to advance fair and just data practices;
  6. Prohibit "take it or leave it" terms;
  7. Promote privacy innovation; and
  8. Limit government access to personal data.

Outlining the current threats to the public, the framework document explains that "digital giants invade our private lives, spy on our families, and gather our most intimate facts for profit. Bad actors, foreign and domestic, target the personal data gathered by U.S. firms, including our bank details, email messages, and Social Security Numbers."

"Our privacy laws are decades out of date," it concludes. "We urgently need a new approach to privacy protection."

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