Apple CEO Tim Cook has called on the US government to introduce new tools to help users control the online data collected about their lives. Writing in an op-ed for Time magazine, Cook said consumers should have the power to “delete their data on demand, freely, easily and online, once and for all.”
In the column Cook inveighed against what he called the “shadow economy” of data brokers: companies that collect and sell personal data generated by digital tracking. Cook repeated points he made in a speech last year, saying that the public needs new rights to manage this information. Personal data should be minimized, says Cook, it should be secure, and individuals should be able to access and delete it whenever they like.
“This problem is solvable — it isn’t too big, too challenging or too late.”
“Consumers shouldn’t have to tolerate another year of companies irresponsibly amassing huge user profiles, data breaches that seem out of control and the vanishing ability to control our own digital lives,” writes Cook. “This problem is solvable — it isn’t too big, too challenging or too late.”
As head of a company that makes privacy a key selling point, Cook has long extolled the virtues of minimal data-collection. But in recent years, as scandals involving big tech companies like Facebook and smaller data brokers like Equifax, have brought shady practices into the light, his message has become more strident. It’s moved from abstract discussions of the rights and wrongs of data collection to concrete calls for legislation.
In the op-ed today, Cook is explicit. He says new federal standards are needed, and calls on the Federal Trade Commission to create a “data-broker clearinghouse” — a central facility where companies that collect and sell personal information would have to register their activities. This, writes Cook, would enable consumers to “track the transactions that have bundled and sold their data from place to place, and [give] users the power to delete their data on demand, freely, easily and online, once and for all.”
Cook is certainly not alone in advocating for this sort of regulation, but there is, as yet, no unified political will to introduce this sort of law. While politicians on both sides of the aisle are now calling for federal legislation of some sort, arguments about what this legislation might look like have only just begun.
Yesterday, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced a new data privacy bill, the American Data Dissemination Act. The bill would allow the FTC to write new privacy recommendations for Congress, but would also override existing laws and state-level legislation, like those passed in California last year. This has worried some Democrat politicians, who say the proposal could end up “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” while allowing big tech to write their own rules for data privacy.
For Cook, banging the privacy drum is simple and rewarding: it differentiates his company from data-hungry rivals like Facebook and Google, while side-stepping the compromises Apple itself makes in China. But when it comes to creating new legislation that will protect consumers, the challenge becomes much more complicated, with no clear end in sight.