Commentary

California Privacy Proposal Poised To Advance

Voters in California could decide this November whether to approve a ballot initiative that would allow them to wield control over their data.

The California Consumer Privacy Act would require companies to tell consumers what "personal information" has been collected about them, upon their request. The proposed ballot initiative would also give consumers the right to prevent data about them from being sold. Additionally, the measure would increase fines and penalties for businesses that fail to implement reasonable security to protect consumers' data.

The initiative's sweeping definition of personal information includes not only names, street addresses and email addresses, but also information that many marketers don't consider personally identifiable -- like IP addresses, device identifiers and web-browsing history.

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Backers said Thursday that they had submitted 625,000 signatures in favor of the initiative -- almost twice as many as the 365,880 needed to qualify for a spot on November's ballot. Consumers Union, search engine Duck Duck Go, and the Consumer Federation of California are among the groups supporting the initiative.

A webpage for the bill poses questions like, "Do you know who owns your personal information?" and "Do you know how businesses make billions of dollars a year with your private data?"

The site's home page features videos of people in California going about their lives, while detailed marketing information about them fills the screen. At one point, visitors see a man walking in an outdoor shopping area, then learn that he is 38 years old, his most recent purchase was "hair loss prevention shampoo," and his most recent medical search was for "athlete's foot."

The bottom of the page reads: "Your life is not their business."

Tech companies and Internet service providers are already teaming up to fight the proposal. Google, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T contributed $200,000 each to an opposition group that calls itself the Committee to Protect California Jobs, which opposes the measure. Facebook had been part of that coalition, and also contributed $200,000 to it, but withdrew earlier this month.

The Association of National Advertisers plans to become active with that coalition, executive vice president of government relations Dan Jaffe recently told MediaPost.

On Thursday, the leaders of the Committee to Protect California Jobs -- including the Internet Association's Robert Callahan, who heads the state government affairs team -- slammed the proposal as "unworkable."

"This ballot measure disconnects California," the group stated. "It is unworkable, requiring the internet and businesses in California to operate differently than the rest of the world -- limiting our choices, hurting our businesses, and cutting our connection to the global economy.”

Whether those arguments will resonate with voters -- particularly in light of revelations that Trump's data consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, harvested data from 87 million Facebook users -- is an open question. But some prior surveys have suggested that voters are more inclined than politicians to support privacy regulations.

Last year, for instance, a survey by Huffington Post and YouGov reportedly showed that more than 70% of Republicans and Democrats supported Obama-era broadband privacy rules. Those rules would have required Internet service providers -- but not other web companies -- to obtain consumers' opt-in consent before using their web-browsing information for targeted advertising. The FCC passed the rules in 2016, but the Republican-led Congress repealed them last year.

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