Consumer Protection In The 21st Century


By Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

When I became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in January, I made clear that in everything we do, we must act in the best interest of the consumer. Americans should have access to vibrant, competitive markets, where consumers know their options and have the freedom to choose what’s best. Innovation has created tremendous opportunity, growth and access in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. But it has also created new risks. Consumers should remain safe from unfair, deceptive, and malicious practices both online and off.

It is this committee’s mission to protect consumers, and in the coming months, we will be taking a more expansive look at the online experience to ensure safety, security, and an unfiltered flow of information.

Recently, the Equifax data breach compromised the personal information of 145 million Americans, including social security numbers, addresses, credit card numbers, and more. This committee held a hearing on the breach and will continue to deeply scrutinize the staggering amount of personal information changing hands online and the business practices surrounding those transactions.

The reality is, Americans are only going to spend more and more time engaging in online activity, making purchases, and logging into their favorite websites and apps. That’s why this committee will examine in-depth what actions taken online by both consumers and businesses mean for everyday Americans.

We want all Americans to have a better understanding of how their data flows online.
Realistically, most people do not take the time to read long privacy policies written by teams of lawyers. Adding to the confusion, the extent of and methods by which information is collected and used by companies can vary widely depending on their business model. When a student orders textbooks on Amazon, or a grandmother uses Facebook to connect with family, what happens to their information, and who has access to it? Firms also control what consumers see when visiting their sites, potentially altering content and choices unbeknownst to the consumer. Can consumers be sure that the results they see on Google or other search engines reflect the most relevant results? Can consumers have confidence the news and information they encounter online and through social media platforms are presented to them objectively and without bias? Next month, we will hold a hearing analyzing these practices, making certain they do not infringe on consumer choice and safety.

Additionally, after several major hacks, such as those at Equifax, Target, Anthem, JPMorgan Chase, and Yahoo, malicious actors are able to “package” information on a consumer from multiple stolen data sets from the black market into one identity profile. This mosaic of personal information potentially exposed by a number of breaches over several years could have detrimental effects on a consumer’s financial safety, making bank accounts and other sensitive online accounts more susceptible to theft.

My colleagues and I will hold a separate hearing to assess identity verification practices, and determine whether they can be improved to protect personal data on the web even after a consumer’s information has been breached.

These hearings are just the start of a long-term, thoughtful, and research-focused approach to better illuminate how Americans’ data is being used online, how to ensure that data is safe, and how information is being filtered to consumers over the web. While technology is responsible for a lot of positive change in our world, malignant behavior online can have consequences that are not fully disclosed to the American people.
It’s our job to shine a light on these practices for consumers and ensure transparency in the marketplace so they can make informed decisions.

Today, technology has blurred the lines between our lives in the physical world and on the internet — creating new opportunities and risks. Consumers have the right to understand the relationship between the two. Congress will play a critical role in shaping this conversation and the Energy and Commerce Committee intends to start these necessary conversations on behalf of consumers.

This column originally appeared on the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s official blog, at Medium