PD Editorial: Protect online privacy in California

On health care, immigration, climate change and other issues, the Golden State has led the fight against misguided Trump administration policies. Now state lawmakers have a chance to add internet privacy to the list.

Under President Barack Obama, the Federal Communications Commission developed rules to protect people’s privacy from nosy broadband companies. No longer would byzantine opt-out forms be the only way to keep one’s online activities private.

This spring, Congress overruled the FCC and repealed the privacy protections. Your internet provider can now track and sell your browsing habits all it wants.

The Trump administration and its allies in the GOP-controlled Congress were happy to help out telecommunications companies that make a lot of money selling and exploiting their customers’ personal data. It probably doesn’t hurt that those companies spread the wealth in the form of generous campaign contributions.

However, Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Monterey Park, has other ideas. He has introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 375, that would reinstate the Obama-era rules, at least for Californians. If Comcast, Verizon or any other broadband providers want to collect or sell personal information, they would have to get permission first. Users would have to opt-in before giving up their privacy.

They are akin to a basic utility, and that demands a level of greater regulation to protect consumers.

Imagine a world in which the electric company could monitor not just how much power you consume but also what devices you turn on and what you do with them. That might include everything from the television shows you watch to the meals you microwave. Such detailed information would be quite valuable to marketers.

That scenario is impossible, of course, but something similar is possible for your internet provider. The company that delivers data to and from your home can see everything that you do online.

Chau’s bill would not apply to content providers such as Google and Facebook, only to companies that provide the data pipes. Google and Facebook are limited by who chooses to interact with them and visits or uses their sites. Those who do typically receive services for free. Who pays for a Gmail address? But people do pay for their internet access.

The bill is not a slam dunk. Nineteen other states have considered similar bills, but none has become law.

California is uniquely able to take a strong stand in favor of consumer privacy. If the digital age has a technological and corporate center, it is here. We’re also large enough to make a difference nationally.

Most states can only roar and gnash their teeth until the next election. If a low-population state strikes out on its own, companies and national policymakers can ignore it for the most part. They cannot ignore California.

California is not a leader in the “resistance” to borrow the terminology of progressive activists. It is a leader, period, and it has been for a long time. Many things contribute to the state’s prominence in setting the national agenda, not least that we put people before corporate convenience. It’s funny how people appreciate that.

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