Let the people own their data

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Great responsibilities should come with great power and profits.

WHEN FACEBOOK CEO Mark Zuckerberg sat before the House Financial Services Committee last week he must have felt like the turkey who gets invited over for Thanksgiving dinner.

The supposed reason for Zuckerberg being there was to face questions over Facebook's plan to - seriously - create its own digital currency. Congressional Democrats and Republicans have expressed concerns because, well, usually creating currency is something sovereign nations do.

Beyond that rather important point, committee members had plenty of other questions ranging from Facebook's troubling record on issues related to privacy, misinformation, hate speech, racist speech and other civil rights matters.

IN FAIRNESS, Zuckerberg and his company are just one prominent example of a massive problem involving society's relationship to digital media. It's fair to say Silicon Valley has vastly outpaced the law's ability to keep up with the so-called information age.

Part of that is by design. This is still a fairly new industry, and it was smart to avoid burdening it early on with choking regulatory boundaries. But as digital companies have matured the scope of mistakes - and deliberate misbehavior - has become more obvious.

In the wild west digital climate it was easy for bad foreign actors to attack U.S. elections with effective disinformation campaigns. It has been relatively easy for hackers to steal personal data. Worse, digital companies profit enormously by collecting and selling the personal information of millions of people. Copyrighted content routinely is lifted without compensating producers. And the largest digital companies mostly deny responsibility for objectionable, even false, content carried on those platforms.

The companies routinely argue they can police themselves. Evidence suggests that's "fake news."

QUESTION: WHO OWNS the personal data you create by using digital media?

Hint: It's not you.

Question: The last time you were on a digital site and were asked to accept its terms of use, did you read it?

Hint: Neither does anybody else. It's too dense. Too hard to understand. And that's not by accident.

We believe a fundamental congressional responsibility is to protect the people from being preyed upon, both from bad actors bent on harm and from companies intent on profiteering by invading privacy. We believe one should own their personal data. We believe companies should have to get permission - through brief, easy-to-understand terms that must be regularly renewed - before mining data for profit. We believe there should be consequences for abusive practices. We believe people should be able to withdraw consent at any time, quickly and easily.

The digital age holds enormous promise - and equally enormous threat. Congress needs to be a better referee.

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