Legislature needs to clarify credit card law

California consumers shouldn’t have to reveal any more personal information than absolutely necessary, whether they’re shopping at a mall or at their computers.

That means the Legislature ought to debate whether to update the state’s consumer protection law for credit card purchases to cover the billions of dollars of online purchases. The state Supreme Court basically beckoned lawmakers to do so in its 4-3 decision Monday in a lawsuit brought by an Apple customer who didn’t want to divulge his home address and phone number to download music.

The majority of justices ruled that the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act ‘ which bars "brick-and-mortar" retailers from demanding such information ‘ does not extend to online transactions. The justices agreed with e-retailers that argued they require personal data to fight fraud and identity theft. Unlike traditional retailers, they are unable to require photo identification, Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the majority.

Indeed, Liu asserted, the law enacted more than two decades ago ‘ before Amazon and iTunes became ubiquitous ‘ did not envision online transactions. "In 1990, the idea of computerized transactions involving the sale and purchase of virtual products was beyond any legislator’s imagination," he wrote. "Such technology was not even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye."

The three dissenting justices, however, cautioned that the ruling further erodes privacy protections and frees retailers to sell personal information to other companies. The justices noted that other forms of remote purchases such as mail and telephone orders did exist when the law was passed. Civil liberties and consumer advocacy groups argue that online merchants can prevent fraud without collecting so much personal data.

There needs to be the right balance between protecting merchants from losing money to fraud and shielding shoppers from unnecessary intrusions into their privacy.

As usual, there are a lot of inconsequential bills being bandied about the Capitol this session. Here’s an issue worth the Legislature’s time, where it can do some real good.