(TNS) — It’s called the state Assembly’s “Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee.” Yet after last week’s shameful debacle, it ought to change its name. It was working for neither your privacy nor your consumer protection. However, it was doing the bidding of businesses large and small.
How large? How about Microsoft large.
Rare is the legislation that can attract an opposition list as long and diverse as AB2261, by Assemblyman Ed Chau, a Democrat representing the San Gabriel Valley and chair of the so-called privacy committee, which called for unduly light regulation of facial recognition technology. Critics worried about everything from potential discrimination against people of color to interference with legitimate law enforcement to the impracticality of relying on the state attorney general (rather than empowering citizen lawsuits) for enforcement.
It isn’t every day that the American Civil Liberties Union and the California State Sheriffs’ Association are on the same side against a bill. Yet there they were, lined up against AB2261, along with a very long list of consumer and civil rights organizations.
And it certainly isn’t every day that a bill makes it out of committee with just one entity listed in support. Yet there it was: Microsoft.
Perhaps the most anti-privacy bill of the session advanced on an 8-3 vote. (Peninsula residents take note: Among the yes voters were Democrats Marc Berman and Kevin Mullin. To her credit, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, voted no).
Why should you care?
“AB2261 would create a world where your daily life could be continuously tracked by facial recognition systems, and you could be turned away from health care, businesses, housing and employment opportunities — based solely on the scan of your face,” the ACLU warned. It added that such technology has been used by law enforcement to target people of color, and its accuracy of identifying black and brown faces has proved dubious.
It gets worse.
The committee chair did not even allow a hearing on the two most consequential privacy bills before it. AB3119, by Wicks, would have tightened the Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 to substitute the term “share” for “sell” in the law prohibiting the use of a consumer’s personal information beyond what is “reasonably necessary” to provide a service or activity that the consumer has requested.
The relevance and urgency of Wicks’ bill is underscored in a lawsuit filed against Zoom Video Communications for allegedy sharing users’ personal data with outside companies, including Facebook, without permission. Zoom has insisted it ended the practice.
“We’re relying on technology more than ever,” Wicks said. “I think there’s going to be an increase of working from home, which has its benefits of course — certainly from a public health perspective — but we have to keep consumer privacy on the forefront of these changes.”
Chau’s defense for refusing to hold a hearing was that he was prioritizing pandemic-related bills this year and had to make some difficult decisions. It’s certainly a reasonable-sounding standard, if only it were followed. Hasn’t Chau heard that Zoom has become such the format of choice for everything from business meetings to family gatherings during shelter-in-place that it has become both a noun and a verb?
Wake up, Mr. Chairman. Look around at what is happening in homes throughout the state.
One of the most inescapable realities of the home-centered world is that children are spending significantly more time online. They’re not only taking classes online but — let’s face it — they’re often surfing alone while mom or dad is on that Zoom call with clients or colleagues.
“We’re kind of in this wild, wild west of online access for kids,” said Wicks, mother of a 3-year-old. “You have millions of children who are literally on screens all day long now, with parents trying to work at the same time and can’t look over their shoulders every second of the day to monitor what they’re doing.”
However, advertisers certainly want to know what they’re doing — and exploit the interests they reveal.
Facebook once established an absurdly low bar for parental consent for a program in which third-party advertisers paid to have product “likes” of child users spread to their friends. It merely asked a child to agree: “If you are under the age of 18, you represent that a parent or legal guardian also agrees to this section on your behalf.”
Facebook ultimately ended that program, but its language has become the template for many other companies throughout the internet.
AB3212, by Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-Templeton (San Luis Obispo County), with Wicks as co-author, would require an app or social media site to actually obtain parental permission before selling a minor’s personal information. As the Children’s Advocacy Institute wrote in a letter to the committee: “Imagine if parental permission slips, instead of asking a parent to sign, asked the child to sign saying, ‘I promise I asked my parents and they said it was OK.’”
Such a system is obviously not OK for most parents.
Yet AB3212 died without a hearing that would have given advocates a chance to make their case.
So what did pass in that so-called privacy committee last week?
Oh, there was AB3116, (by Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks [Ventura County]) to allow state or local governments to obtain greater information (albeit not traceable to an individual) from rented scooters, electric bicycles and other “mobility devices.” And there was AB2149 (by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego) to facilitate the ability of restaurants to obtain customer information from food delivery platforms such as DoorDash.
Either bill may be worth doing, but it’s hard to argue that either of those issues rates among the priorities for a state now facing a $54 billion budget shortfall. And neither is more important than protecting our children from advertiser exploitation.
“During a crisis when children are online more than ever in history, even for their schooling, the Legislature’s only committee with the word ‘privacy’ in its name passed bills to protect restaurant owners and scooter drivers, and a bill opposed by over 40 groups and supported by Microsoft ... but would not grant even a hearing to a three-sentence bill (AB3212) written by the committee with no opposition that would have offered our children privacy protection,” said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute.
“I speak for a living, and I just don’t know what to say,” he added. ”It is just so, so sad.”
And whatever happened to the Legislature’s pledge to narrow its focus to wildfires and the coronavirus?
“There’s a randomness to it,” said Robert Herrell, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California.
When Microsoft gets its way and our children’s interest does not, it’s not random. It’s about the influence of money in politics — and it is unacceptable.
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