Without a doubt, the internet has opened countless doors for disenfranchised or underrepresented communities — especially women, people of color, rural communities, and the LGBTQ community. However, in recent years, a darker side of the digital revolution has emerged as online data and privacy concerns have become a pervasive part of the national conversation regarding the future of the internet.
Security breach after security breach has exposed tens of millions of consumers’ personal information, leaving many rightfully skeptical about their online safety. Federal policymakers must come together to strengthen our internet privacy protections — to ensure not only that we are protected but online competition remains vibrant and continues to drive a strong economy.
For women in particular, the internet has been an incredibly empowering force, spurring new economic, employment, and educational opportunities; facilitating the formation and growth of online communities that provide support for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse; as well as supporting and advancing creative expression and collaboration. However, with respect to our safety and privacy, women also face a disproportionate number of threats when we go online.
Unfortunately, far too many social media sites and other internet platforms have become places where online abuse and harassment of women has been allowed to proliferate for too long. This, on top of the potential to have our online privacy exposed, has become an issue that can no longer be ignored.
Past federal efforts to solve this problem have been too limited in scope and have never fully addressed the matter of online privacy and data security. In most of these cases, the regulatory approaches being taken would only apply to a small fraction of the internet ecosystem — for example, by applying online privacy rules only to internet service providers, but leaving out internet companies like Facebook, Amazon, or Google.
Given the unprecedented access these online titans have over our personally identifiable information, federal online privacy laws should apply to these companies as well. Consumers deserve one set of privacy rules that not only ensures their rights and privacy remain protected, but also provides consistency across the spectrum internet players.
In absence of federal guidance, many states have begun to implement their own online privacy and data security rules. While this may seem like a positive, proactive development, it is the entirely wrong approach for something as ubiquitous as the internet. Our online data flows seamlessly across the internet ecosystem — which itself is not bound by state borders. A patchwork of state privacy regulations will not effectively address this issue; it will only create confusion and make it more difficult for consumers to benefit from new internet services and applications.
What we need is for Congress to coalesce around federal legislation that codifies a uniform, consistent set of regulations that protect online privacy for consumers. Such rules — applied evenly and equally across the internet — will give all users, and women in particular, a greater sense of security and confidence in their online safety.
Everyone deserves the right to feel safe and secure when they go online, no matter who they are, where they live, or what information they are sharing. The sooner Congress puts pen to paper and passes federal legislation to provide a set of internet privacy rules, the safer we will all be online. While this would undoubtedly help protect women, it is an issue that affects every American. It is well past time for Congress to act.
Amy Hinojosa is President and CEO of MANA, A National Latina Organization.