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AT&T CEO calls on Congress to pass federal privacy, net neutrality legislation

AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson called on Congress to pass federal legislation to create clear national standards for data privacy and net neutrality, saying that the growing crop of state-by-state laws on these topics would create a challenging business climate for U.S. companies.

"What would be a total disaster for the technology and innovation that you see happening in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, is to pick our head up and have 50 different sets of rules for companies trying to operate in the United States," Stephenson said Nov. 12 at a technology conference sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.

Congressional action on those topics "is critical" to stave off that possibility, he said, adding this injunction: "Pass a body of legislation around customer data protection; it shouldn't be that difficult to pull together."

In June, California passed a privacy bill that will allow consumers in the state to know why data is being collected, how it is being used and which third parties have access to that data. It also gives consumers the ability to opt out from the sale of their personal information and delete personal information. The law will take effect in January 2020.

Four states — California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have enacted net neutrality legislation. Six states — Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Montana, Rhode Island and Vermont — have all had executive orders pertaining to net neutrality signed by their governors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California agreed Oct. 26 to delay enforcement of its net neutrality law while a federal appeals court hears a challenge to the Federal Communications Commission's rollback of net neutrality laws.

Former Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer, who also spoke at the Journal's tech conference, advocated for a different approach than AT&T's Stephenson.

"I would hate to see the regulation in the hands of the Congress," Ballmer said at the conference. "Regulation in the hands of the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] — yeah, I get that. Or the DOJ [Department of Justice]? I get that. The difference is, those are people who can put staffs on to really understand the details."

The comments come just days after the deadline passed for comments to be submitted in response to a draft proposal from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce that advises the president on telecommunications issues. The proposal outlined high-level objectives for a federal privacy solution, and the comment deadline elapsed Nov. 9.

USTelecom, a trade group representing major telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., expressed similar sentiments as Stephenson in Nov. 9 comments filed with the NTIA, calling for federal privacy legislation to clarify and enhance the FTC's authority to police privacy practices.

In comments submitted in response to the NTIA proposal, FTC staff argued that as Congress and the Trump administration consider privacy reform, the FTC should remain the primary enforcement authority on laws related to information flows in markets.