How the pandemic response underscores the need for new privacy laws that meet post-COVID demands
In March 2020, no one could have predicted just how much the COVID-19 pandemic was going to affect American society. Stay-at-home orders and business closures completely changed the way Americans conduct nearly every daily activity. The internet became a saving grace for many. Millions of employees were able to work from home, students could continue classes with online learning, patients were able to see doctors using telehealth, friends and family were able to gather remotely, and customers were able to access essential goods and services online. While 2020 was a challenging year for the world, the internet enabled some sense of continuity amidst widespread uncertainty.
And the numbers are clear on just how much Americans and small businesses relied on the internet in 2020: According to OpenVault, average monthly household bandwidth usage in 2020 was up 40 percent from 2019. This increase in online activity accelerated digital trends, such as e-commerce and telehealth:
- Overall increased consumer digital activity: A study by McKinsey found a 24 percentage point increase from 2019 to 2020 in digital consumer interactions.
- E-commerce and targeted ads enabled business stability: Deloitte reported a 44 percent uptick in use of targeted advertising on social media among small to medium businesses (SMBs) in the US since the pandemic began. SMBs that used targeted advertising were twice as likely to report higher revenues.
- Accelerated shift from in-person to online services, such as telehealth: According to researchers in Health Affairs, in the first few months of the pandemic, more than 30% of health visits were provided via telehealth, and the weekly number of telehealth visits increased twenty-three-fold compared with pre-COVID-19.
These new online trends are unlikely to go away anytime soon, as the pandemic has established a “new normal” for many Americans and small businesses. For example, a recent McKinsey survey found that 65 percent of consumers across 13 countries, including the US, intend to continue to explore new ways of shopping after the pandemic, specifically shifting even more towards online retail. Even as the COVID-19 vaccine has become widely available and states are beginning to reopen, pandemic life continues to digitize so much of how we work, play and connect. And businesses need to be able to keep up with these shifting consumer demands.
This new reality underscores the urgency of protecting consumers’ online privacy with a clear, broad-based federal privacy law. All consumers deserve protection of personal data as they increasingly rely on the internet for more daily activities. At the same time, establishing national rules that facilitate the responsible use of data is crucial to maintaining business growth and creating a vibrant internet ecosystem that allows consumers and small businesses alike to benefit in a digital society.
Privacy for America has outlined a new paradigm for a national law that would better protect personal data by formally outlawing harmful data practices. Under the current “notice and choice” approach, the burden falls nearly entirely on consumers who are asked to read and understand lengthy and complex privacy policies. Instead, we are proposing a new federal law that would provide, for the first time, broad-based privacy rules for the entire U.S. marketplace and ensure consumers are protected – no matter where they live. Under our proposal, companies would adhere to well-defined policies that distinguish between legal data practices that benefit consumers and illegal ones that are harmful or make their personal information vulnerable.
As we inch closer towards a post-pandemic world, it’s clear that this new, online behavior of consumers is here to stay. Congress needs to act quickly to pass a federal privacy law now that would provide real protections to all consumers and enable small businesses to thrive in an increasingly digital world. We can’t wait any longer.