A committee of the Maine legislature voted Friday to recommend the repeal of a controversial privacy law that restricts gathering or publishing information about minors.
The state's judiciary committee agreed with a host of outside organizations that argued that the measure was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment and affects interstate commerce, according to Peggy Reinsch, staff attorney for the committee.
But, Reinsch says, the lawmakers aren't completely giving up on enacting new legislation aimed at preserving the privacy of teens' health data. "They wanted to applaud the original intent of the bill," she said, adding that the committee is recommending that the legislature draft a more limited measure addressing the collection of minors' health-related information.
The original law, officially dubbed "An Act To Prevent Predatory Marketing Practices against Minors," prohibits companies from knowingly collecting personal information or health-related information from minors under 18 without their parents' consent. The bill, which went into effect on Sept. 12, also bans companies from selling or transferring health information about minors that identifies them, regardless of how the data was collected.
A diverse array of groups -- including the Association of National Advertisers, the online industry group NetChoice, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the civil liberties organization Center for Democracy & Technology -- had urged the Maine lawmakers to rescind the law.
Opponents argued that the measure violates the First Amendment because it apparently prohibits activities like publishing the names of children under 18 in the newspaper in certain circumstances. The act also appears to have an impact on teens' right to receive information and to participate in social networking sites. Critics also maintained that the bill amounted to an unlawful restriction on interstate commerce, and that it was preempted by a separate federal law -- the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which restricts companies' ability to collect data about children under 13.
NetChoice, which includes AOL, eBay, Yahoo and News Corp., specifically argued that many Web companies might stop operating in Maine if the law remains on the books.
"Whether it is intentional or by accident, the act impacts a broad spectrum of websites and online services," NetChoice argued in written comments urging that the bill be rescinded.
NetChoice argued that the law could result in companies like Something Fishy -- which offers an online forum where teens discuss eating disorders -- excluding Maine residents. Something Fishy appears to violate the Maine law because it allows minors under 18 to register and participate without parental permission. "Because of the sensitivity teens have about anorexia and bulimia, it is likely that most teens would not seek their parents' permission and would be blocked from receiving life-improving advice," NetChoice said.
The Maine legislature enacted the bill earlier this year without any opposition. But this summer the measure was challenged in court by the Maine Independent Colleges Association, Maine Press Association, Reed Elsevier and NetChoice.
U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock dismissed the lawsuit last month, after Attorney General Janet Mills said she wasn't going to enforce the act. But Woodcock said in his dismissal order that the law likely violates the First Amendment.
Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, cheered the decision to recommend repeal. "We're delighted that the committee concurred with the court in finding this law unconstitutional and unworkable," he said.