California state assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal is temporarily shelving her proposed privacy bill, the Right to Know Act (AB 1291), which would have granted state residents the ability to access data held about them by marketers.
The bill was modeled after European privacy law -- which enables consumers to demand to see the data about themselves held by companies -- but appeared to grant consumers rights to a broader range of data than in many EU countries. Specifically, the Right to Know Act would have required companies to disclose, upon consumers' request, the names of ad networks, data brokers, or other third parties that received personal data.
The measure defined personal information as encompassing “any information that identifies or references a particular individual or electronic device.” That definition includes not only names and email addresses, but also IP addresses and “anonymous” data, like unique cookies.
The Right to Know act also provided that consumers were entitled to learn any marketing-related inferences made about them -- including whether they were considered likely to seek a mortgage, lease a car or purchase a computer in the near future.
The measure faced significant opposition from an array of business and technology companies, including the California Chamber of Commerce, Direct Marketing Association, NetChoice (which represents AOL, eBay, Overstock, and others) and TechAmerica (made up of companies Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and others). They argued that the bill was too onerous, especially for small businesses.
Opponents also said that ad networks, app developers and other data collectors would have trouble organizing customers' anonymized data in ways that it could be easily shared with them. For some smaller companies, that's probably true. But it's worth noting that some tech companies, including Google, already share information with consumers about inferences regarding their marketing segments.
In any event, it's not clear how many consumers would ever go to the trouble of figuring out which cookies on their browsers were associated with particular ad networks, and then asking them for more detailed information.
Lowenthal reportedly says she intends to introduce the measure again next year. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be the worst idea for Web companies, ad networks and data brokers to figure out how to give consumers a clear picture of how their data is being used.