About 12 years ago, I experienced one of my favorite career failures.
I was serving as a Counsel for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. Senate committee staff write proposed new laws (bills) and try to convince stakeholders (other Senate staff, constituent citizens and companies, and federal agencies)—to approve of the language so that senators vote for passage.
In this case, bipartisan leaders of the committee tasked four of us staff to write—and get stakeholders to approve—a bill that would define how companies should protect consumers’ online data.
I was excited. I’d cut my teeth on First Amendment law during the dawn of the internet, and I had a deeply nerdy interest in how America would decide questions related to the data being generated by the digital economy: Who owned it? Who would get to use it? How should it be protected?
The answers to these questions, in my mind, would have a big impact on whether our nation’s societal and economic stories thrived or failed.
Data, after all, was the oil of the emerging digital economy. New companies were building internet-based business models by soliciting data and directing it to where it was needed and wanted. The value of data was obvious—with perfect information, people could make perfect decisions, lubricating the movement of the marketplace.
Companies could save time and money—and therefore increase returns on investment—by learning who would be open to doing business with them. Makers of products could get feedback to resolve glitches and adjust for consumer tastes. Perfect information could accurately match buyers and sellers with less friction.
The digital companies enabling the Internet-based marketplace were emerging then, and have become American leaders in the global economy since.
But for consumers in the new digital economy, the question of data’s benefits was more complicated. Information can reward consumers by, for example, accurately pricing risk—this is what allows a consumer with good credit to qualify for a mortgage on a home. But when a consumer’s data is not as positive, it could keep them from receiving that loan—at least until they built up a stronger credit history.
The bill we drafted failed to gather the votes it needed because we could not agree on where to set the needle on the questions posed above. Take the question of who owned the information. Is it the consumer who generated it? Or the business that invested in the systems that turn it into something valuable?
Today the digital economy has matured, and consumers have become wary. According to a survey conducted by data solutions company, SAS, almost three-fourths of respondents said their concern over the privacy of personal data has increased in the past few years, and 67 percent think government should do more to protect data privacy.
Last year, California passed a law curtailing the use of consumer data. Several other states are following suit. Some industry groups are calling for federal legislation that preempts these laws. Senators from Hawaii, Oregon, Minnesota, Louisiana, and Florida have introduced bills over the last few months and more are expected.
I’ll be watching this data debate as it plays out. I work now in the space where transportation, technology, and telecommunications are converging to move people and goods with less friction. And critical to this new ecosystem is, of course, data.
Data about city and road conditions can enable traffic flow. Information about the logistical needs of goods being moved across modes—from a train to a truck, to a last-mile drone delivery, for instance—can speed commerce.
Transportation data can even yield societal benefits—such as saving lives and addressing socioeconomic equity issues. Think, for example, about data gleaned by sensors on vehicles that can enable automated driving, reducing driver-caused crashes, data sent from the scene of a crash to alert emergency responders, or data that enables transportation solutions that give people located far away from jobs, health care, and other social services access to those critical opportunities.
When the digital economy dawned, we recognized that a good consumer/business trust relationship on data could yield commercial benefits. But in transportation, where much of the data that yields these benefits is privately owned, the issue of whether consumers trust others with their data is not only about marketplace efficiency and growth; sometimes, it’s also about matters of equity and even life or death.
Lawmakers have a hard job writing federal privacy legislation today. A lot is riding on how we reward businesses for their investment and reward consumers for trusting companies with their data. But creating a productive synergy between business and consumer interests is worth it to gain the benefits for us all, which is the real endgame in transportation policy today.