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WASHINGTON — On Monday, Free Press urged the Federal Trade Commission to exercise its authority to prohibit data brokers and other commercial entities from abusing the online privacy rights of people in the United States. 

“The over-collection, targeted use, and sale of people’s personal data leads to discriminatory outcomes and harms disproportionately borne by members of classes protected by the nation’s civil right laws,” reads the Free Press filing. Free Press submitted these comments as part of an agency proceeding to consider new protections against “commercial surveillance.” 

When the FTC proposed the rulemaking earlier this year, it put forth evidence of abuse already available in filings from groups like Free Press, in academic studies and in published news reports. Free Press and allies have petitioned the agency to make rules guarding against data-based civil-rights abuses. As the FTC recognizes, companies’ growing reliance on algorithms and other data-dependent automated systems has created new mechanisms for discrimination in critical areas such as banking, housing, employment and health care. 

“We call on the Commission to craft data minimization requirements under what the [advance rulemaking proposal] classifies as data security regulations, and to define blatantly discriminatory data practices as unfair and therefore unlawful acts,” Free Press wrote in its filing.

Free Press also joined with 20 other groups in comments filed by the Disinfo Defense League (DDL), a network for Black and Brown community-based organizations that are disrupting disinformation campaigns targeting communities of color. DDL members urged the agency to protect how digital data is collected and sold, and to craft rules to mitigate the spread of racialized disinformation that specifically targets and threatens communities of color. 

Matt Wood, Free Press’ vice president of policy and general counsel, said:

“Information about what we do online and off is in the hands of often unscrupulous tech companies, data brokers and other private entities. Many of these companies engage in a widespread pattern of unfair and deceptive practices that are especially harmful to historically disadvantaged communities.

“For years, Free Press has urged the FTC to adopt privacy protections to guarantee people the same commercial opportunities and safeguards from abuse regardless of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or other protected characteristics. We’ve long suggested that privacy rules must be re-calibrated to protect against discriminatory practices targeting people in these protected categories. We enthusiastically support the FTC’s early but significant strides in that direction today. 

“Working with our allies across the country, we’re already building a public record of harms in communities most affected by privacy violations. We’ve urged the agency to outline ways to remedy these abuses, including rules that narrow the scope of the collection, retention and sale of data. We’ve called for regular company audits to assess the impact of algorithms. And we’ve pushed the FTC to hold companies accountable for any discriminatory intents and impacts.

“The FTC has the authority to conduct this rulemaking and to define specific data practices as unfair and unlawful. That includes the authority to assess and then prevent harms especially and disproportionately inflicted on people of color and members of other categories protected under civil-rights law. The agency should move past this advanced stage of the proceeding required by current law as soon as it can — and then adopt rules based on mounting and substantial evidence of such harms.”

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