America’s own GDPR was introduced in Congress in 1974. This Bill applied to government and companies, it restricted international transfers and offered U.S. and foreign “data subjects” rights to access, erasure and even… explanation.
The U.S. has been recently working towards finally adopting comprehensive privacy and data protection rules, with unfolding efforts both at federal and state level. Until now, only Californians can claim they actually achieved something on the road to protecting their rights impacted by the widespread collection and use of personal information. Other serious efforts are undergoing in Washington State, but they may end up being undermined by good intentions.
These developments are possible right now due to a combination of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation’s (GDPR) global reach and notoriety, the countless privacy scandals affecting Americans, and the absence of comprehensive statutory legal protections in the U.S. of privacy and other individual rights that may be affected by the collection and use of personal information.
But did you know this is not the first time the U.S. is having privacy law fever? In the late ’60s and early ’70s, American lawmakers were concerned about the rise of automated data processing and computerized databases. Serious efforts were put into analyzing how the rights of the American people could be protected against misuses and abuses of personal information. The Fair Credit Reporting Act was adopted in 1970. An influential Report was published in 1973 by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) proposing a set of Fair Information Practice Principles built on an impressive, meticulous analysis (read it if you haven’t done so yet; bonus: it’s peppered with smart literary mottos in between chapters). The Report called for comprehensive federal privacy legislation applicable both to government and companies.
About six months after the publication of the HEW Report, in January 1974, Bill S.3418 was introduced in the US Senate by three Senators — Ervin, Percy and Muskie, ‘to establish a Federal Privacy Board, to oversee the gathering and disclosure of information concerning individuals, and to provide management systems in all Federal agencies, State and local governments, and other organizations’.
This Bill was clearly ahead of its time and aged astoundingly well, especially when compared to some of the key characteristics of the GDPR — the current global golden standard for comprehensive data protection law:
It applied to both public and private sectors, at federal and state level
The Bill had a very broad scope of application. It covered the activity of “organizations” defined as any Federal agencies; the government of the District of Columbia; any authority of any State, local government, or other jurisdiction; any public or private entity engaged in business for profit. It only exempted from its rules information systems pertaining to Federal agencies that were vital to national defense, as well as criminal investigatory files of Federal, State or local law enforcement and any information maintained by the press or news media, except for information related to their employees.
It created a Federal Privacy Board to oversee its application
The Federal Privacy Board would have been created as part of the Executive branch, composed of five members appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate, for a three year mandate. The Board would have been granted effective powers to investigate violations of the law — including by being granted admission to the premises where any information system or computers are kept, to recommend either criminal or civil penalties, and to actually order any organization found in breach of the law ’to cease and desist such violation’.
It equally protected the rights of Americans and foreigners as data subjects
It’s quite difficult to believe it (especially in the context of the endless Transatlantic debates that ultimately lead to the Judicial Redress Act), but this Bill explicitly protected “any data subject of a foreign nationality, whether residing in the United States or not” by requiring organizations to afford them “the same rights under this Act as are afforded to citizens in the United States”. Such a broad personal scope has been a characteristic of the European data protection law framework even before the GDPR. It also made possible the legal challenges brought in the UK against Cambridge Analytica by David Caroll, a U.S. citizen residing in New York.
It provided restrictions for international data transfers to jurisdictions which did not apply the protections enshrined in the Bill
Under this Bill, organizations were required to “transfer no personal information beyond the jurisdiction of the United States without specific authorization from the data subject or pursuant to a treaty or executive agreement in force guaranteeing that any foreign government or organization receiving personal information will comply with the applicable provisions of this Act with respect to such information”. The idea of restricting transfers of personal data to countries which do not ensure a similar level of protection is a staple of the EU data protection law regime and the source of some of the biggest EU-US tensions related to tech and data governance.
It provided for rights of access to, correction, “purging” of personal information. And for notification of purging to former recipients!
The Bill provided for an extensive right of access to one’s own personal information. It required organizations to grant data subjects “the right to inspect, in a form comprehensible” all personal information related to them, the nature of the sources of the information and the recipients of the personal information. In addition, it also granted individuals the right to challenge and correct information. As part of this right to challenge and correct information, the Bill even provided for a kind of “right to be forgotten”, since it asked organizations to “purge any such information that is found to be incomplete, inaccurate, not pertinent, not timely nor necessary to be retained, or can no longer be verified”. Moreover, the Bill also required organizations to “furnish to past recipients of such information notification that the item has been purged or corrected” at the request of the data subject.
It provided for transparency rights into statistical models and receiving some explanation
The same provision granting a right to challenge and correct personal information referred also to individuals wishing “to explain” information about them in information systems, but it is not clear how organizations should have particularly responded to explanation requests. Elsewhere in the Bill, organizations “maintaining an information system that disseminates statistical reports or research findings based on personal information drawn from the system, or from systems of other organizations” were required to “make available to any data subject (without revealing trade secrets) methodology and materials necessary to validate statistical analyses” (!). Moreover, those organizations were also asked not to make information available for independent analysis “without guarantees that no personal information will be used in a way that might prejudice judgments about any data subject”.
It provided some rules even for collection of personal information
One of the key questions to ask about data protection legislation generally is whether it intervenes at the time of collection of personal data, as opposed to merely regulating its use. This Bill cared about collection too. It provided that organizations must “collect, maintain, use and disseminate only personal information necessary to accomplish a proper purpose of the organization”, “collect information to the greatest extent possible from the data subject directly” and even “collect no personal information concerning the political or religious beliefs, affiliations, and activities of data subjects which is maintained, used or disseminated in or by any information system operated by any governmental agency, unless authorized by law”.
There are other remarkable features of this Bill that remind of features of the GDPR, such as broad definitions of personal information and data subjects (“an individual about whom personal information is indexed or may be located under his name, personal number, or other identifiable particulars, in an information system”) and show sophisticated thinking about managing the impact automated processing of personal data might have on the rights of individuals. Enforcement of the Bill included criminal and civil penalties applied with the help of the U.S. Attorney General and the Federal Privacy Board, as well as a private right of action limited only to breaches of the right to access personal information.
So what happened to it? Throughout the legislative process in Congress, this Bill was almost completely rewritten and it ultimately became the US Privacy Act 1974 — a privacy law quite limited in scope (applicable only to Federal agencies) and ambitions compared to the initial proposal. The answer about what might have happened during this process to fundamentally rewrite the Bill is somewhere in these 1466 pages recording the debates around the US Privacy Act of 1974.
Be it a failed attempt to provide comprehensive data protection and privacy legislation in the U.S., it nonetheless shows how much common thinking is shared by Europe and America. At the same time this Bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate, Europe was having its own data protection law fever, with many legislative proposals being discussed in Western Europe after the first data protection law was adopted in 1970 in the German land of Hesse. But according to Frits Hondius, a Dutch scholar documenting these efforts in his volume “Emerging Data Protection in Europe” published in 1975:
After a shared start in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the two privacy and data protection law regimes evolved significantly different. Almost half a century later, it seems to be Europe’s turn to impact the data protection and privacy law debate in the U.S..