The Democrat With the Bully Pulpit

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By Fawn Johnson, NationalJournal

Bill Nelson is fired up about supercookies.

More specifically, the Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat is ticked off at Verizon. He says the mobile tracking devices that can’t be detected or deleted are being used by service providers to record customer data without their knowledge. The users become virtual guinea pigs for the industry. AT&T abandoned the practice earlier this year, but Nelson thinks Verizon hasn’t been as cooperative.

“This is absolutely outrageous. This is outrageous,” Nelson says in an interview. “Verizon just meanders along, puts the supercookies in, [and is] going to feed out all the information to all of their vendors. ‘Give me money, boys.’ And the poor consumer is unwitting. He’s walking around with somebody snooping on him all the time and then sending him stuff that he did not want, he did not ask for, and in most cases cannot afford.”

When Nelson got wind of the supercookies in late January, he took to the Senate floor and demanded legislation outlawing them. “I started ‘raising Cain,’ as we say in the South,” he says with a smile.

The Verizon example illustrates two of Nelson’s biggest priorities as a legislator: Protecting consumers as technology progresses in unpredictable ways, and using his Senate profile to shame those he perceives to be bad actors.

As it turns out, this straight-arrow Southern gentleman from Florida has a sharp side. In just the past six months, he has gone after Verizon on supercookies and Takata for exploding airbags.

As a result of congressional pressure abut defective airbags, more than 2 million vehicles have been recalled, and the Transportation Department last month fined Honda $70 million. In the Verizon case, Nelson has sent requests to both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission asking the agencies to look into Verizon’s use of mobile tracking devices.

And it all happened with merely the suggestion of legislation. “It had an immediate result. Verizon said they’d pull back. Well, we will monitor that,” he says. “This is the use of the power to influence in the committee, as opposed to just passing legislation.”

In the wake of Nelson’s complaints (and those of a few other Democrats on the committee), Verizon officials announced this month that it would soon give customers the ability to opt out of the “identifier” that is linked to its own advertising programs. In a statement, Verizon spokeswoman Debi Lewis also said that the company never shares information with third-party advertisers.

Elected to the Senate in 2000, Nelson has been around long enough to know the countless ways that bills can die. So he likes to go for a twofer when he can, getting businesses or industries to change their behavior more hastily than the lawmaking process will allow. “Where I see something that is harming the public, recognizing that legislation is going to take a while to pass, if at all, I’m going to bring this to the public’s attention,” he says.

He has honed his bully-pulpit skills nicely over the past two years, at a much more low-profile committee. In the previous Congress, Nelson was chairman of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, where his only weapon to ferret out bad behavior was publicity. “It has no legislative jurisdiction, but we didn’t need that, because no legislation was passing anyway. So we made the most of it,” he said.

Hearing after hearing in the Aging Committee explored the challenges facing older Americans, including Alzheimer’s disease, medication labeling, and phone scams. The committee’s biggest accomplishment was the establishment of a fraud hotline in 2013. The hotline continues to run under the committee’s new chairman, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

In December, a bipartisan committee report summarized some 1,900 calls to the hotline. It pointed to disturbing trends in fraud schemes targeting seniors, such as callers posing as family members—often as grandchildren—in need of help. Committee pressure caused two companies that made hard-to-track prepaid debit cards to stop production of the versions the fraudsters were using.

This is the enjoyable part of being a committee leader for Nelson, a way to track accomplishments while digging in on complex policy issues that will take some time to work out. He has been on the Commerce Committee since he was elected to the Senate, starting as the lowest-ranked Democrat in 2001. Having watched the Internet grow up before the panel’s eyes, he is a big believer in scrutinizing emerging industries to make sure they protect consumers. That doesn’t mean he wants to burden them with regulations, as Republicans and industry lobbyists sometimes assume. But it does mean he’s going to ask a lot of questions. At a recent hearing on “The Internet of Things”—e.g., Fitbits, Web-enabled toothbrushes, and medical-monitoring devices—Nelson presented a barrage of concerns about individual privacy, hacking, and Wi-Fi hijacking.

“No one’s talking about overregulating,” he said. Innovation, however, needs to be “balanced with real concerns over privacy.”

As daunting as Nelson can appear to technology investors who want to stay as far away from regulations as possible, he is schooled in the art of the doable. At a closely watched hearing on net neutrality in January, Nelson said he did not agree with those who were pressing for Congress to act before the FCC issues its controversial open-Internet rule. (That rule is expected this week.) His comments were read by industry-watchers as backing away from net-neutrality legislation proposed by Thune to put a lighter touch on Internet developers than the FCC seems inclined.

But in a subsequent interview with National Journal, Nelson said he has always been open to working with Thune on net-neutrality legislation. “Some people kind of get mixed up [by the statement at the hearing] because it’s more of the timing,” he says. “We’re going to take the temperature of the water after the FCC rules.”

Last fall, with the impending retirement of the committee’s chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, both Nelson and Thune knew they would be the top lawmakers on the panel. But before the election, they didn’t know who would be chairman and who would be ranking member. Even so, they made a bargain: “We started discussing, is there common ground, and we’re going to constantly look to see if there’s common ground,” Nelson says.

From his perspective, that means the two committee leaders will find areas of agreement and push those in the committee. Where they disagree, they won’t push partisan proposals but continue to talk. And while they’re doing that, they’ll shine the spotlight on misbehaving companies, as Nelson loves to do. “We’re going to do that with vigor,” he says. “With vigor.”