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California privacy graphic

Digital rights groups are fighting against Big Tech-backed bills that they argue would "erode" California's landmark data privacy law approved by state legislators last year. (Image: EFF)

Digital Rights Defenders Sound Alarm Over Big Tech's Efforts to 'Erode' California's Landmark Privacy Law

"We will not let them kill strong privacy bills in the dark."

Jessica Corbett

Digital rights advocacy groups are sounding the alarm about legislation in California backed by Big Tech that critics warn would water down a landmark data privacy law the state adopted last year.

"Tech companies are saying that they support privacy yet still deploy their money and pressure to silence real privacy bills."

"Tech companies are saying that they support privacy yet still deploy their money and pressure to silence real privacy bills," the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit civil liberties group, said in a statement. "We will not let them kill strong privacy bills in the dark."

Last June, state legislators passed and then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). As Common Dreams reported at the time, some observers charged that CCPA—which replaced a bolder ballot initiative—didn't go far enough.

Others, however, argued that with the law, "California could be the bellwether for the privacy movement" and set a new national standard.

Lawmakers, voters, consumer advocates, experts, and business interests all seem to agree that some amendments are needed before the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020. However, warnings are mounting that—in the words of Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik—"big business is trying to gut California's landmark privacy law."

Detailing how "business has begun to take steps to roll back parts of the law," Hiltzik wrote for the Times Friday:

The effort began in earnest a couple of months ago, with the introduction in Sacramento of a passel of bills corresponding to the wish list of the California Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies. They're fighting not only the CCPA as enacted, but measures also introduced this year to strengthen the privacy law by giving consumers more power over their data and expanding their right to bring lawsuits against wrongdoing firms.

Hiltzik's column came just ahead of the California Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee's hearing Tuesday to consider a series of bills related to CCPA.

Late Monday, it was revealed that the committee would not hear A.B. 1760, a bill proposed by Democratic Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks that was backed by EFF, other privacy advocates, and, according to ACLU polling, a huge majority of the public.

"California voters clearly want increased protections that hold tech companies accountable," Jacob Snow of the ACLU of California said last month. "Meanwhile, tech companies are trying to undermine existing law. The question is: will California lawmakers side with their constituents or with companies putting profits before privacy?"

"The question is: will California lawmakers side with their constituents or with companies putting profits before privacy?"
—Jacob Snow, ACLU of California

Politico's Jeremy B. White reported that Wicks pulled her "Privacy for All" bill, and that it is "dead for the year."

Digital rights groups EFF and Fight for the Future both expressed disappointment with the development and called out the committee for "voting on industry-backed bills that undermine privacy."

Noting that committee was slated to "vote on several bills backed by Big Tech interests that will erode the CCPA and the promises this law made to give all Californians the privacy rights they want and deserve," EFF, in its statement, urged state legislators to stop the industry-backed bills and vowed to keep fighting for strong privacy legislation.

In a set of letters to state lawmakers on Tuesday, a coalition of groups including EFF took aim at four measures in particular: A.B. 25, A.B. 846, A.B.873, and A.B. 1564 (pdfs). The coalition proposed amendments for the first two bills and outright opposed the latter two.

"In coming weeks," EFF added, "we will work to pass S.B. 561, which will improve the enforcement of the CCPA by ensuring that people can sue the companies that violate their privacy rights, and strengthening the powers of the California Attorney General."

As Hiltzik noted in his column Friday, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra has explicity supported the state Senate bill. His office said in a legislative statement (pdf) earlier this year, "There is something unfair about giving California's consumers new rights but denying them the ability to protect themselves if those rights are violated."

While digital rights advocates work to defend and strengthen CCPA, there is also a battle raging at the national level about data protections—and, as Lee Fang wrote for The Intercept last week, "the lobbying push to water down and overturn the California law has been so intense that some federal legislators are raising questions about whether the urgency for a national standard is simply a vehicle for lobbyists to push pre-emption, provisions in the federal law that would supersede and roll back the state-level privacy laws."

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