Influencers Opinion

How can California effectively protect privacy rights and personal data of its citizens?

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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It’s unnerving to know that technology companies are keeping track of what we do when we’re online. On the other hand, it’s nice to get all the free stuff from those companies in exchange for being able to keep track of us.

Last year, the California state Legislature passed one of the nation’s most sweeping privacy laws, requiring technology companies to disclose the information they collect from their customers and allow Internet users to prevent their data from being sold without their permission. A year later, the fight over the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is still raging.

“It is entirely reasonable to share our personal information in exchange for value such as distributing photos on Instagram or the convenience of online shopping. Likewise, it is reasonable for those providing such services to earn a profit,” said Debbie Mesloh, president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. “However, sharing our individual data should be a choice – one that should be informed by what happens when we voluntarily share it with others.”

But leaders in the technology sector warn of the CCPA’s potential economic impact.

“Businesses have a responsibility to respect consumers’ privacy and be good stewards of their personal data… Unfortunately, (this) law will make doing business in the Golden State more difficult and expensive,” said Silicon Valley Leadership Group President Carl Guardino. “Companies trying to comply with the law aren’t given proper guidance from state lawmakers. Under these circumstances, dollars that would have gone to research and innovative consumer products will soon be spent on lawyers…”

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California Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Jennifer Barrera also advocated for a more balanced approach.

“It is critical that policy makers strike the right balance between privacy protections and preserving the benefits that useful data services provide to consumers. Some of those benefits include… frequent flyer miles and retailer purchase discounts, identity theft protection tools, and the ability to qualify for major purchases like a home or car based on available data,” Barrera said. “We need policies that work for consumers and businesses and continue to offer the benefits we have come to expect.”

But several California Influencers who supported the new law advocated for even more aggressive pro-consumer measures.

“California does need to protect privacy but we also need to recognize – and monetize – the collective value of the personal data we provide… your data combined with everyone else’s data is a gold mine,” said USC professor Manuel Pastor, who called for a “tech dividend” in which companies return a portion of the profits they make from user data to the consumers themselves. “So the real question is: if our data is our property and worth something when coupled with everyone else’s data, why aren’t we in on the profits?”

Former State Controller Steve Westly, a longtime technology industry leader and former senior executive at eBay, focused on the need for additional legal tools and other consumer protections against privacy violations.

“California is the global leader in innovation. It’s time we lead the way in privacy and data protection,” said Westly, who also cautioned about broader potential privacy challenges for consumers. “We should begin thinking ahead: data privacy is not just about Americans who have smart phones and laptops – we need to set policies for the Internet of Things, including home devices, too.”

Other Influencers stepped away from the specific debate over the CCPA to raise broader questions about the use of customer data.

“Who owns your data,” asked Pepperdine University professor Luisa Blanco Raynal. “Some define ownership of data based on how it was created and who created it. Data is usually created in a platform (either developed by the government or the private sector) and by an individual. Thus, determining property rights between these two entities is not straightforward.”

Chad Peace, president of IVC Media, proposed a more fundamental approach to resolving the underlying challenge of protecting consumer data.

“Instead of trying to legislate every way our personal data is implicated, we should simply start with a constitutional framework that gives individuals a meaningful opportunity to protect their privacy,” Peace said. “This should include a legal presumption that personally identifying information is confidential as well as a presumption that the unauthorized or unreasonable disclosure of personally identifying information causes harm that can be measured in economic damages.”

“This would give individuals a meaningful opportunity to protect their personal information by providing a reasonable expectation of privacy as well as a remedy when the standard is not met,” he said.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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