California: Weighing a Response on Internet Privacy

by Mike McPhate, New York Times

President Trump this month signed a resolution to undo internet privacy rules that would have kept companies like AT&T and Comcast from selling users’ browsing histories and other personal data.

Almost immediately, a number of states — among them Washington, Connecticut and Massachusetts — moved to pass new rules that would in effect replicate those nullified by Congress.

But California, a pioneer of privacy protections, has so far been silent.

That could soon change.

Assemblyman Ed Chau, a Democrat who heads the Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, said he was holding meetings on steps the Legislature could take to safeguard personal information.

“California has been at the leading edge of innovation in approaching privacy issues and consumer protection for years, and there is no reason for that to change,” he said in a statement.

Some lawmakers have argued that the privacy rules, drafted last October by the Federal Communications Commission, would have unfairly targeted telecom carriers, while sparing web companies like Google and Facebook that also provide access to user data.

“They really created an unlevel playing field,” said State Senator Joel Anderson, a Republican who has worked on digital privacy. He added, “They gave free rein to Google and to Facebook.”

Privacy groups have noted that consumers can avoid a website with objectionable user terms. But to go online, you have to contract with a broadband provider.

That doesn’t mean letting the web services off the hook, said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, a nonprofit.

“We’d love them to go after Google,” he said. “But you start with the folks who have unfettered control of watching everything you’re doing.”

Any effort to reproduce the overturned federal rules in California is by no means a lock.

Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said lawmakers had introduced “many, many bills” over the years intended to shore up digital privacy.

“Unfortunately, very few of them have been signed into law,” she said.

One of those was in 2015, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that required law enforcement to get a warrant before accessing user data.

The latest privacy debate, however, differs in a crucial way: It threatens business interests in a state where tech companies enjoy tremendous influence.

“Technology is a very large industry in California,” Ms. Ozer said, “so I think there are a lot of legislators who are very cognizant of those issues.”

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