Top executives from Facebook, Google and Apple heaped praise on Europes revamped data protection standards Wednesday, just as these companies face ever tighter scrutiny over privacy and the prospect of similar restrictions in the United States.
Apples Tim Cook — the only U.S. CEO to appear in person — spoke in the strongest terms, calling for a federal U.S. privacy law to match Europes General Data Protection Regulation, and warning about the rise of a “data industrial complex” that would work against regular people.
“Our own information, from the everyday to the deeply personal, is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” he told a conference of privacy professionals in Brussels.
Appearing via video link, Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg and Googles Sundar Pichai also heralded the advent of privacy legislation, though in less explicit terms, while acknowledging the challenge of “getting privacy right” on their global platforms.
“If people dont trust us, then they wont use us,” said Zuckerberg, whose last personal appearance before European lawmakers in Brussels misfired, after his social network allegedly mishandled the data of up to 87 million users by handing the information over to Cambridge Analytica.
“Changes in European law doesnt change the pressure on the FTC” — Noah Phillips, U.S. federal trade commissioner
Yet the show of support for Europes privacy law conceals vast differences in how the United States and Europe conceive of privacy, as well as between many of Silicon Valleys biggest names.
Cooks warning about the “data industrial complex” and calls for U.S. laws was far more pointed than statements from the Facebook or Google bosses, whose business models largely rest on harvesting vast amounts of personal data.
Noah Phillips, a U.S. federal trade commissioner, acknowledged that the onset of Europes new privacy standards has triggered a debate about privacy in the United States. “GDPR has certainly had an impact on the national conversation in the U.S.,” he told POLITICO.
“Its as robust a conversation weve had on this issue certainly for a long time,” he added. “But changes in European law doesnt change the pressure on the FTC.”
Industry watchers and data protection campaigners questioned the firms motivations| Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A series of privacy scandals concerning Facebook and Google — who use peoples data to target them with digital advertising — are sharpening consumers interest in privacy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Authorities in Europe and the United States are carrying out investigations into potential misuses of personal data, a target that senior executives chose not to emphasize on Wednesday.
Googles Pichai said the search giant — which suffered its own data leak earlier this year — is offering its users a greater say over what data the company collects. He added that Google is now advocating for comprehensive privacy principles across its digital services.
“Getting privacy right requires careful consideration of the hard issues that come up every day,” he said.
Legislate, then add water
While tech executives promoted their privacy credentials, industry watchers and data protection campaigners questioned the firms motivations amid a growing regulatory push worldwide to pass new legislation.
“A year ago, their playbook was self-regulation,” said Alastair Mactaggart, a campaigner who helped to pass Californias recent privacy regulation, in reference to the tech companies. “But now, they want a federal law that is weak.”
Beyond Europes revamped privacy rules, which came into force at the end of May, countries from Brazil to Japan have similarly proposed new data protection standards, while U.S. lawmakers — after a series of setbacks — are again starting to consider federal rules.
For firms like Facebook and Google, ensuring ongoing access to data remains key amid the global overhaul of data protection standards.
Amid this privacy push, some tech companies are quickly changing their tune, with some advocates warning that these firms are now in favor of new legislation so that they can lobby to water it down as much as possible.
Not surprisingly, tech officials disagree. They claim that their existing privacy standards offer people sufficient protections, and that by collecting individuals information to power online advertising, they can offer users free services that otherwise would not be available.
Whats complicating the debate, though, is that different tech companies often have contradictory goals, depending on their business models.
For firms like Facebook and Google, ensuring ongoing access to data — even with greater privacy protection for their users — remains key amid the global overhaul of data protection standards.
But for companies like Apple, whose main income generator is selling smartphones and other digital devices rather than collecting peoples information, stronger data protection rules would not affect their underlying business.
“After Cambridge Analytica, privacy is suddenly being discussed everywhere,” said Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.