The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, enacted in 2018, provides far-from-perfect data privacy protection, but it stands in stark contrast to the legislative dearth in the United States, where there are no comprehensive federal data privacy laws on the books. In his second State of the Union address, though, US President Joe Biden devoted more attention than ever to the need for such a measure.
With political control of the US Congress now split, Biden asserted that a data privacy law could garner bipartisan support. It’s an idea that has been gaining traction in recent years, and the mention of data privacy issues in Tuesday’s State of the Union sets a precedent that the topic should be of real concern to US presidents and the public.
“We must finally hold social media companies accountable for experimenting they’re doing [on] children for profit,” Biden said during his speech, garnering a standing ovation from members of both parties. “It’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on our kids and teenagers online. Ban targeted advertising to children and impose stricter limits on the personal data that companies collect on all of us.”
Previous US presidents rarely mentioned data privacy in the State of the Union. Former president Donald Trump never mentioned the topic in any of his annual addresses. Former president Barack Obama mentioned the topic only once during the 2014 State of the Union, following revelations about the previously undisclosed scale and scope of the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance programs. He said then: “Working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs—because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
In his first State of the Union, in 2022, Biden talked about data privacy as it pertains to protecting children. “It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children,” he said at the time.
Biden’s remarks this year went further, signaling a shift in mainstream understanding about the urgency of improving data privacy protection in the US. Whether the step will lead to productive action in 2023, though, is less clear. In his remarks, Biden called for cooperation among lawmakers—a dynamic lacking in both chambers on Capitol Hill. “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” he said.
All parts of the US political spectrum would likely agree that the previous Congress was not exactly a shining example of a high-functioning, collaborative legislative branch. By including a mention of data privacy in the State of the Union, Biden is adding extra pressure on his administration and lawmakers to deliver on an issue that affects everyone.