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Senators introduce bipartisan bill forcing tech companies to disclose value of users' data

In an era when it seems that more divides the country than unites it, some Republicans and Democrats can agree on one thing: targeted Facebook ads must be stopped.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley introduced a bill Monday requiring big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to tell consumers about what data they are collecting, and the value of that data.

Social media companies harvest large amounts of data from users, such as information about lifestyle, age, location and gender. This legislation would require "commercial data operators," defined as services with over 100 million monthly active users, to disclose what kind of data is collected and the value of that data every 90 days.

"If you're an avid Facebook user, chances are Facebook knows more about you than the U.S. government knows about you. People don't realize one, how much data is being collected; and two, they don't realize how much that data is worth," Warner said in an interview with "Axios on HBO." Warner probably does have some idea of what the data's worth -- before he served as Virginia's senator and governor, he was a tech-focused venture capitalist who founded Nextel. 

The bill, called the Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data Act (DASHBOARD Act), would also require companies to annually report the aggregate value of user data, as well as contracts with third parties related to data collection.

It would also force companies to allow users to delete some or all of the data collected, and to disclose to users how the data is being used.

"When a big tech company says its product is free, consumers are the ones being sold. These 'free' products track everything we do so tech companies can sell our information to the highest bidder and use it to target us with creepy ads," Hawley said in a statement on Monday.

"Even worse, tech companies do their best to hide how much consumer data is worth and to whom it is sold. This bipartisan legislation gives consumers control of their data and will show them how much these 'free' services actually cost," Hawley continued.

This is the second bill that Hawley and Warner have partnered on together. The Do Not Track Act, introduced by Hawley in May and modeled after the Federal Trade Commission's "Do Not Call" list, would allow users to block online companies from collecting any data beyond what is necessary.

On the surface, Hawley and Warner don't have much in common. Hawley defeated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018, and has voted in line with President Trump around 80% of the time since taking office in January, according to FiveThirtyEight. Warner, on the other hand, has voted with Mr. Trump 0% of the time since January.

However, as attorney general of Missouri, Hawley has confronted big tech companies before. In 2017, he opened an investigation into whether Google's data collection practices violated state consumer protection and anti-trust laws. Ensuring that companies don't exploit users' data is a topic on which Hawley and Warner agree.

While Warner has not gone as far as his fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has introduced a plan to break up big tech companies as part of her presidential campaign, he has expressed increasing frustration with companies that collect users' data with very little accountability.

"If they're not willing to work with us on this kind of, I think, rational, focused reform, then I may very quickly join the crowd that simply says, 'You know, let's break them up,'" Warner told "Axios on HBO." "And I say that as somebody who was a technology entrepreneur longer than I've been a senator."