U.S. Representative Hank Johnson represents the Fourth Congressional District of Georgia, which includes portions of DeKalb, Gwinnett and Newton counties and all of Rockdale County. He has served in the House of Representatives since 2007 and currently serves on the Judiciary Committee and the Transportation Committee. We recently asked the Congressman to visit with us and our Inside Democracy readers.
Privacy online – especially on social media such as Facebook and Twitter – has become a big concern in the digital and big data era. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, what are you doing to address digital privacy?
The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed earlier this year, in which the data of more than 50 million users was collected and used for election purposes, along with numerous other data breaches ranging from Amazon to Equifax to Wells Fargo to the recent hacks of retailers such as Chili’s, Arby’s, and Chipotle showed consumers lack even basic protections for their private data online. I have introduced two bills that deliver critical updates and modernization to our digital privacy laws. Our need for data security is pervasive and attacks on this data can be one of the most pernicious yet dangerous attacks to our citizenry.
First, the bipartisan Application Privacy, Protection and Security (APPS) Act of 2018 (H.R. 6547), is a bill to increase consumer privacy on mobile devices, and second is the DATA Act of 2018 (H.R. 6548) that makes it easier for consumers to correct and opt out of big data collection and use.
The APPS Act will boost consumer privacy on mobile devices by requiring app developers to maintain privacy policies, obtain consent from consumers before collecting data, and securely maintain the data that they collect. The Data Act would bring big data out of the shadows, create transparency and control for consumers over their personal data, and provide consumers with the tools to correct the record and minimize collection.
Privacy is an issue that should unite us, not drive us apart. We have fully entered the era of big data, and consumers access the Internet through mobile devices now more than ever. It’s past time our laws to reflect this reality through common-sense rules for data collection, transparency, and use.
Our military and intelligence services say unequivocally that the Russians meddled and interfered with the U.S. electoral processes in 2016. What are you doing to combat this serious threat to our democracy?
I have introduced two common-sense bills to help secure the integrity of U.S. elections from foreign influence and interference and from forces at home that could make access to the ballot more difficult.
The Restoring Confidence in America’s Elections Act (H.R. 3132) is a bill that amends the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to: (1) prohibit the purchase or use in a federal election of an electronic voting system that does not produce a voter-verified paper record; (2) prohibit the imposition of conditions on voting by mail; (3) make mandatory the availability of early voting; and (4) require sufficient polling places, equipment, and resources to facilitate voting.
My Election Infrastructure and Security Promotion Act (H.R. 1907) would direct the Department of Homeland Security to: (1) designate voting systems used in the United States as critical infrastructure; (2) include threats of compromise, disruption, or destruction of voting systems in national planning scenarios; and (3) conduct a campaign to proactively educate local election officials about the designation of voting systems as critical infrastructure and election officials at all levels of government of voting system threats. It also directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop standards for ensuring the operational security of the voting systems used in elections for federal office.
There’s been a lot of talk at the state and national level about criminal justice reform, from sentencing guidelines to prison reform. What are some of the more important aspects of criminal justice reform in your mind, and how are you addressing them?
In the aftermath of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, and countless cases since then, the shooting of unarmed citizens by police has been a big concern to me. And the fact that there are little to no repercussions for the officers involved in the shootings shows the system needs reform. The over-the-top police response to peaceful protestors in Ferguson, in Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline and others has me concerned about the militarization of police and how we especially police communities of color in this country.
On this front, I have introduced several bills to reform the criminal justice system. The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (H.R. 1556), would restrict the transfers of certain surplus military-grade weaponry from the Department of Defense to state and local law enforcement agencies. These weapons are ordinarily used during times of war or in combat, and I believe are not tools that should be available to law enforcement, whose role in protecting and providing safety to the public falls under an altogether different mission than to defend and attack enemy combatants.
Our Founders opposed using a standing army to patrol our streets. James Madison called this ‘one of the greatest mischiefs that can possibly happen. The disturbing images we witnessed in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Standing Rock reminded the American people how a militarized police force can make our communities less safe.
Under the “1033 program, the Department of Defense has transferred over $6.1 billion in surplus military equipment to our streets. Small towns and school districts have been given Mine Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs), grenade launchers and high-caliber assault rifles. These weapons are provided to local and state law enforcement agencies simply for the asking, and without the knowledge or approval of the state or local civilian governing authority.
I’m not opposed to local law enforcement departments getting excess to some surplus military equipment to help them stay safe and the community as well, but my bill would put control of the process back in the hands of the local governing authority – city and county councils – to decide whether their local police should have this equipment.
Another bill I introduced would also help reform a broken criminal justice system. The Grand Jury Reform Act (H.R. 4332) would require the appointment of a special prosecutor to conduct an investigation and present the results to a judge in a probable cause hearing, open to the public, whenever a police officer kills an individual while acting in the line of duty. This bill would help restore trust in our justice system, while ensuring a fair process for all parties.
The legislation also specifies that in order for local law enforcement agencies to receive federal funding, they would have to comply with this new process. If enacted, the governor of the state where the incident in question occurred would appoint a prosecutor, who would present evidence on behalf of the state at the hearing. The preliminary hearing would also remain open to the public, except as determined appropriate by the presiding judge.
People demand an end to what is perceived as unequal justice, and that those who are responsible for the use of excessive force be brought to justice. They do not trust a secret grand jury system that is so clearly broken. My bill will help restore that trust. No longer will communities have to rely on the secret and biased grand jury process.
Taxes are always of keen interest to Georgians and all Americans. I know you voted against the GOP tax plan because you felt like it gave too many breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent and not enough to working Georgians. What tax reform are you willing to support?
I was proud to pass my bipartisan Mobile Workforce State Income Tax Simplification Act (H.R. 1393), which makes it easier for Americans who work in multiple states to pay their taxes and for businesses to comply with state law. This legislation is commonsense and provides certainty to entities that do business in a number of states. It also streamlines the complicated rubric of state taxes. Simplifying the confusing patchwork of state income tax reporting and filing laws into more straightforward standards not only reduces costs and confusion for both businesses and employees, but also encourages interstate commerce. This is much needed reform and is a good day for business.
Arbitration and arbitration clauses specifically are getting a lot of attention lately as more and more consumers understand that by inserting individual arbitration clauses into a soaring number of consumer and employment contracts, corporations have devised a way to circumvent the courts and bar people from joining together in class-action lawsuits, realistically the only tool citizens have to fight illegal or deceitful business practices. What is your remedy to this growing consumer protection issue?
Since I entered Congress in 2007, I have tackled arbitration. Through a well-documented pattern of exploitation, forced arbitration has whittled away at the vital statutory protections for countless workers and consumers against discrimination and predatory lending.
As overwhelmingly and methodically documented by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s 748-page report, which was statutorily required by section 1028 of the Dodd Frank Act, forced arbitration restricts consumers’ relief for disputes by limiting class actions, and the vast majority of consumers don’t know that they are subject to arbitration agreements.
Since 2007, I have championed The Arbitration Fairness Act, which would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases. Beyond comprehensive legislation to end forced arbitration, I am also working with agencies to end forced arbitration in specific areas.
The recent Equifax data breach jeopardized the economic security of nearly half of all Americans because of the credit rating company’s failure to safeguard our most sensitive information, which could now be in the hands of criminals. To make matters worse, many of those affected by this massive security breach are unsure whether they even have legal recourse because of the company’s use of forced arbitration clauses.
Americans are right to be outraged and frustrated and should be especially concerned about the use of forced arbitration by credit rating agencies like Equifax. Forced arbitration clauses are a predatory consumer practice written into the fine print of contracts. Signers unknowingly waive their right to sue and are forced into arbitration if a dispute arises. Americans should have a right to choose whether to sue or to seek arbitration. Preemptively eliminating our access to the justice system is a violation of every American’s right as a consumer. The justice system is one of the few tools that average citizens have to fight deceitful and harmful business practices, vindicate their rights, and pursue justice.