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Consumer Protection

Sen. Richard Blumenthal

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Mr. President, consumer protection has been a priority for me throughout my career, as I know it has been for the Presiding Officer. Both he and I served together as attorneys general, and now as Senators he and I have worked to give consumers a voice against companies that harm them through deceptive and dangerous or abusive practices.

This month we recognize consumers in two ways. National Consumer Protection Week, recognized the week of March 4 through 10, is led by government and nonprofit groups and its focus is to encourage consumers to take full advantage of their consumer rights and make better informed decisions for themselves in the marketplace. This month we also recognize that many of the same consumer issues affecting Americans every day in their lives impact consumers in every corner of the world. So today we celebrate World Consumer Rights Day.

Every day ought to be Consumer Rights Day because, as President Kennedy once said, we are all consumers and we are consumers every day of every year. Organizations here in America such as Consumers Union and other consumer groups around the world celebrate World Consumer Rights Day as members of Consumers International, the nonprofit organization representing over 220 consumer groups in 115 countries.

Today also marks the 50th anniversary of a very special day in American history for American consumers. On March 15, 1962, President Kennedy sent a message to Congress calling for a national commitment to protecting consumer interests. Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy spoke about the consumer right to safety, to be informed, to choose, and to be heard. These rights are the foundation of what we now know as the Consumer Bill of Rights. The Consumer Bill of Rights has grown to include eight specific guarantees: the right to satisfaction of basic needs; the right to safety; the right to be informed; the right to choose; the right to be heard; the right to redress; the right to consumer education; and the right to a healthy environment.

Today, I wish to propose another right, a ninth right: the right to privacy. There is a growing need to defend individual rights to privacy in a multitude of areas. This country was founded--its basic bedrock--on a desire for personal privacy, on the right to be left alone. It is the reason people came to this country, avoiding unwanted and unwarranted intrusion on their personal space and on their rights and liberties. They came here out of a desire for religious freedom, economic liberty, and the security of their person and property against intrusion. It is a unique, bedrock American right--the right to privacy. Concerns about governmental invasion of personal privacy go back literally to the founding of our Republic and the protections guaranteed under the third amendment when the British lodged troops in our homes without permission, and the fourth amendment, when they searched our homes and seized goods and property from them.

I have heard numerous complaints from Connecticut residents who are concerned about their privacy. They are concerned about Federal and State intrusion into women's health care decisions. They are concerned about government efforts to combat terrorism through tracking of individuals by a GPS or cell phone tower location. Those potential invasions of privacy are by the government, by official forces. But people today are also understandably and rightly concerned about corporate intrusion into their privacy. They are concerned about companies crawling the Web to collect consumers' personal information and selling it to marketers. They are concerned that mobile device apps can access and acquire the device owner's photos and address book without his or her knowledge or consent. They are concerned that credit scores are being created from their use of medications, and that those scores are being used to set personal health insurance premiums. They are concerned about companies that are compiling dossiers on their use of social media sites and blogs and selling those reports to prospective employers. They are concerned because they are powerless to prevent the distribution of their contact information to marketers who then deluge them with advertisements in the mail and by e-mail, and they are concerned about companies who don't secure their personal data and the damages that result from improper breaches and disclosures with the risk of identity theft and worse.

The Constitution was written to protect Americans from government intrusions into their privacy. I understand the difference between government intrusions and private sector invasions. But if the government were treating its citizens the way some companies are treating their customers, people would be outraged. They would be up in arms. They would be dumping tea in the Boston Harbor. The Supreme Court has just ruled that it is not OK for the government to track people via GPS in their car without a warrant, so why would it be OK for a company such as OnStar to track drivers who canceled their subscriptions and sell that information on their movements to marketers?

Americans--many of us, and others--were questioning the PATRIOT Act and its provisions that allow government to access records of what books citizens borrowed from the library and what Web pages they visited while they were there. Yet, companies are tracking consumers' every movement on line, through dozens--even hundreds--of cookies that are secretly installed on consumers' computers whenever they visit a Web site. We would be horrified if the government as a routine matter monitored pictures people take and who they interact with. Yet, according to news reports, mobile devices and apps are doing exactly that.

I believe it is time we protect Americans from intrusions into their personal privacy by companies or educational institutions or others who may not be part of the government. Big Brother or Big Sister no longer need wear a police uniform or a badge or a military uniform. It may well be under the guise of a corporate seal or insignia, and I believe it is time we protect against those intrusions, as well as others. In fact, it is a bipartisan concern. One of the few areas where there is agreement in Congress is the need for better protection of consumers for online privacy. We may differ on the substance; we may disagree as to what the contours and the specifics should be. I am concerned about this issue and I am encouraged by the bipartisan support for attention to it. I was heartened by the President's recent call for a consumer privacy bill of rights--a great beginning, a very positive step forward. I believe our approach to privacy must be comprehensive and robust.

As a threshold matter, companies that collect or share information about consumers should be required to get consumers' affirmative opt-in consent for collecting or sharing that data. Not an opt-out but an opt-in--specific, informed consent. That should apply online as well as offline. We have seen a lot of attention paid to Internet tracking and behavioral advertising. I think we ought to protect consumers from privacy invasions that come from the mail or over the phone. They particularly affect our seniors. If a company wants to collect, aggregate, share, sell, or by any other means, it should get consumers' permission; otherwise, it shouldn't be permitted.

We also need to pay attention to the collection of information through consumers' use of mobile devices. As we have seen recently, some mobile apps or operating systems are capable of tracking not just consumers' Web browsing but also their text messages, what they photograph, who they contact. Mobile devices need a systemwide, do-not-track option to allow consumers to control the distribution of their information.

Finally, the consumers' right to privacy also must encompass the right to prevent unauthorized distribution of that information. To that end, we need to establish requirements for companies that possess consumers' personal information to ensure they have security features in place to prevent data breaches. Those protections must be accompanied by remedies, by fines and penalties that make those rights and protections real so that consumers have a private right of action as well.

Congress is working on these issues. There have been numerous hearings and legislation has been proposed. Having the President add his voice to the call for privacy will only help. As with food safety, product safety, and Wall Street reform, companies themselves are demonstrating the need for legislation and some of them are joining in this effort very constructively.

So as we mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's call to action, let us heed the importance of his message to Congress. He said: ``As all of us are consumers, these actions and proposals in the interests of consumers are in the interests of us all.''

We should be proud in this body of having continued the fight for consumer protection. It should be full-throated and full-hearted.

Americans went West to the Presiding Officer's State and to other States seeking open spaces, economic opportunities, as well as personal opportunities, including the right to privacy and being alone. That American right--that American spirit--is very much with us today. It is 50 years after President Kennedy first articulated it, but I believe it is as real and necessary today as ever.

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

The clerk will call the roll.

The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

Sen. Mitch McConnell

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Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

Without objection, it is so ordered.