In 2017, just months after President Trump took office, he signed a repeal of privacy rules that would have required Internet service providers to obtain people's explicit consent before drawing on their web-browsing history for ad targeting.
At the time, the ad industry cheered the move. Groups like the Association of National Advertisers had specifically urged lawmakers to revoke the rules, arguing that repeal was necessary for the online ecosystem to “continue to thrive and provide a viable platform for commerce.”
But to the industry's evident chagrin, individual states are now filling the void by passing their own laws. Last year, California enacted a sweeping law that gives consumers the right to learn what information has been collected about them by companies, have that information deleted, and prevent the sale of that data. The measure will take effect in 2020.
Maine just passed a law that will require Internet service providers to obtain opt-in consent before using information about people's web activity for ad targeting. The bill, signed Thursday by Governor Janet Mills, will also take effect in 2020.
And New York lawmakers are currently weighing a privacy bill modeled on Europe's broad GDPR -- but even tougher in some respects.
The proposed New York Privacy Act would require companies to obtain users' express consent before drawing on personal data for ad targeting. The measure defines personal data broadly enough to include people's web activity and online searches, even if not attached to their names. It would also allow consumers to bring private lawsuits against companies that violate the measure.
Ad and tech industry representatives testified against the measure in Albany this week.
John Olsen, director for state governmental affairs at the Silicon Valley trade group Internet Association, told lawmakers the bill is “unworkable.”
He added that the bill's broad definition of “personal information” is problematic, as is the idea that companies should obtain affirmative consent before using data for ad targeting.
State Senator Kevin Thomas, who introduced the bill, argues that it is necessary to curb current data practices.
“In this modern age we live in, data is gold,” he said this week at a hearing in Albany. “Our apps need it, our websites need it, it makes our lives easier.”
But, he added, there is “an unexpected cost” for consumers.
“Our personal information ... is traded like a commodity without our knowledge," he said.
Privacy policies, he continued -- which theoretically attempt to inform people about how their data is used -- are only of limited value. They are “only intended to disclose the positive uses of personal information collected,” and not the potential negative uses, he said.
What's more, he added, “ they take long to read,” and “even longer to understand.”
“In reality,” Thomas said, “some of the information being gathered is being shared in ways we cannot imagine.”