One day after Lt Commander (All Your) Data Mark Zuckerberg was lightly sautéed by US Congress over Facebook's fast and loose relationship with user privacy, the Silicon Valley giant has dropped its opposition to a proposed California data protection law.
The California Consumer Privacy Act is a ballot proposition that will be put to voters in November and gives consumers the right to find out what information business are collecting on them and – critically – to tell them to stop selling that information.
The measure [PDF] is supported by a range of consumer associations but has hit serious opposition from tech companies and telcos including AT&T, Comcast, Google, Verizon and, until this week, Facebook.
Mark Duckerberg: Second Congressional grilling sees boss dodge questions like a proREAD MORE
Those companies gather and store huge amounts of personal information on their millions of users and then repackage the information to allowed for targeted ads: a very lucrative business.
Internet companies have long made a significant part of their profits from the sale of such information; a situation that Big Cable that has been complaining about for some time because it was under greater restraints over what it is allowed to do with user information.
New rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would have restricted what ISPs are allowed to do with the personal data they amass were killed off literally one week before they were due to take effect by then-new FCC boss Ajit Pai back in February 2017.
Just for good measure, Congress voted to tear up the same privacy protections one month later.
Having successfully lobbied to shoot down laws preventing them from selling user data, both Comcast and AT&T then embarked on a public relations campaign promising consumers that they would never do such a thing.
"At Comcast, we respect and protect our customers' personal information. Always have, always will," its chief privacy officer Gerard Lewis said in a blog post. "We do not sell our broadband customers' individual web browsing history. We did not do it before the FCC's rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so."
We were even treated to one lawmaker - US House Rep Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) – saying that if people didn’t like having their personal data sold then maybe they shouldn't use the internet.
But when we looked into the various claims made by Big Tech and Big Cable about how they would never sell personal data – even though they had lobbied very hard to make it possible and even though they stand to make a lot of money from doing so – we found that the Bullshit Detector went firmly into the red.
Recently, the same companies have been lobbying extremely hard to prevent states from introducing their own privacy laws in lieu of the federal rules that were snuffed out.
But California is one of roughly a third of US states that allows voters to put forward their own ballot measures, making it much harder for lobbyists to kill off new laws in state legislatures where they have special access to politicians.
A group called Californians for Consumer Privacy put forward its California Consumer Privacy Act that vows to "give consumers an effective way to control their personal information," by:
- Providing a right to know what categories of personal information a business has collected about them and their children.
- Providing a right to know whether a business has sold this personal information, or disclosed it for a business purpose, and to whom.
- Requiring a business to disclose if it sells any of the consumer's personal information and allowing a consumer to tell the business to stop selling the consumer's personal information.
- Preventing a business from denying, changing, or charging more for a service if a California consumer requests information about the business's collection or sale of the consumer's personal information, or refuses to allow the business to sell the consumer's personal information.
- Requiring businesses to safeguard California consumers' personal information and holding them accountable if such information is compromised as a result of a security breach arising from the business's failure to take reasonable steps to protect the security of consumers' sensitive information.
Needless to say, this approach does not sit well with the companies that can make millions from their users' data, so Facebook, Google, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon collectively contributed over $1m to a political action committee that was set up to oppose the initiative.
According to the chair of Californians for Consumer Privacy, Alastair Mactaggart, there is also a $100m campaign in the wings to persuade Californians not to vote for the measure comes November. But, if Facebook is to be believed, it will no longer support or finance that effort.
"We're gratified that Facebook has dropped its opposition to the California Consumer Privacy Act," Mactaggart said in a statement. "Now that they have seen the error of their ways, we hope they will work with us proactively to protect the personal information of all Californians, and support us publicly and financially."
Lessons from SESTA
It is very possible that Facebook dropping out of the fight could be the thing that tips the law over into approval: when Facebook withdrew its opposition to the FOSTA/SESTA law earlier this year – again, in response to fierce criticism from lawmakers – the law was passed, despite continued opposition from much of the internet industry.
Of course, in that case, Big Cable wasn't involved. Having fought – and won – to have to same ability to sell user data as internet companies at the federal level, it is unlikely that AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will halt their efforts against a Californian privacy law.
But Facebook's dropping out is a small victory for consumer groups in the lead-up to this year's ballot measure. ®