On its surface, few California propositions have ever been as confusing as this fall’s Proposition 24, which aims to toughen a 2018 state law allowing consumers to regulate how much of their privacy Internet companies like Facebook and Google should be allowed to violate.
To fully understand the stakes, it’s helpful to watch the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” which shows how social media companies change people’s behavior by using information they collect on what emails folks open, which websites they visit, where people live, and travel and much more.
For each bit of such information, these companies collect and sell, they get a couple of pennies per buyer, which does not sound like much, but adds up to billions of dollars every year.
If you wonder why American political opinion is so deeply divided, former tech executives including the chief designer of Facebook’s “Like” function describe in the documentary how people who do a Google search in various localities often get very different information than folks who live elsewhere. The same for people who donate to one party and those who donate to another.
In each case, prior opinions and preferences are reinforced, so that even when things change in real life, they often do not alter people’s perceptions and opinions.
The 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act aimed to correct some of this. Now the same Piedmont-based real estate developer who caused legislators to pass that law is behind Prop. 24. He contributed almost all the $5.3 million given (as of Oct. 1) to the pro-24 group Californians for Consumer Privacy. That committee name and the name of the lead anti-24 group, Californians for Real Privacy, are similar enough to confuse many voters. This is nothing new; the California initiative movement has a long history of misleading committee names.
The big contributor, Alistair Mactaggart, backs Prop. 24 as a way to toughen the existing law, which allows consumers to request free reports on their personal data that are collected and sold by businesses. Businesses covered include those with more than $25 million in annual revenue and ones that sell and share personal data of more than 50,000 persons a year, or earn at least half their annual income from selling personal data. Companies can be fined for violations.
Prop. 24 would add to these very modest protections by giving each consumer power to stop companies from tracking them precisely, allowing you to forbid the sale of information on things like how often you visit a gym or McDonald’s, your health insurance claims, and much more unless you explicitly give permission. You would also be able to stop companies from tracking your movements via cellphone apps and automotive electronics.
Prop. 24 also sets up America’s first official privacy regulators, the California Privacy Protection Agency, modeled partly on European regulators which provide their citizens with far more privacy than most Americans now have.
Many people are aware that personal information isn’t all that safe anymore, and Americans want that to change. A new DataGrail study found that eight in 10 Americans think there should be a law that protects their personal data.
The proposal also would make it harder for state legislators, continually lobbied by the big Internet interests, to weaken existing privacy rights.
One reason for Prop. 24 is that Mactaggart compromised with legislators two years ago, pulling a very tough privacy proposition he had qualified for the 2018 ballot in return for passage of the current law. That removed the possibility of Mactaggart’s putative proposition losing, which would have left Californians with almost no protection.
Mactaggart promised to come back with stronger rules later, and Prop. 24 represents that effort. “This makes it much harder to weaken privacy in California in the future,” says the ballot argument signed by his wife Celine, “by preventing special interests and politicians from undermining privacy rights.”
Little money has been spent to oppose this measure, and the arguments against it basically claim it would inflict compliance expenses on small businesses. Opponents also gripe that it leaves intact large agencies’ ability to save things like academic and criminal records.
The bottom line is that even if Prop. 24 will not create a perfect world, it’s an improvement on what we have now.
There’s little reason for voters to oppose this, as anyone who prefers to be tracked and categorized can allow it, while people who want out would get a better route than today.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]
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