Silicon Valley tries to rewrite California's consumer privacy law
SACRAMENTO - For the past two months, residents here in California's capital have been inundated by mysterious ads on Facebook and Twitter, warning that the government is about to destroy the Internet as they know it.
"The FREE websites and apps you use every day could start costing you," announced one such ad on Twitter.
"Using the internet shouldn't hurt your wallet," began another that predicted browsing the web could someday seem like paying at the pump for gasoline.
Little did viewers know, though, that the ads came from a lobbying organization representing the very social media sites they were using. They appeared to target mostly people located in or around the state's legislature. And they reflected just how hard Facebook, Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley have tried to muscle changes into the country's first-ever consumer privacy law before its protections take effect in January.
Adopted last year, the California Consumer Privacy Act grants web users the right to see the personal information that companies collect about them and stop it from being sold. The law applies only to residents of the Golden State, but its backers hope it might someday spur regulators around the country to follow suit - and force the tech giants to change their practices nationwide.
"We will have in place the first consumer privacy act in the country," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a top Democrat in the state legislature.
But powerful business organizations - representing retailers, marketers and tech giants - have responded by seeking sweeping revisions to the law before it goes into effect. So far, they haven't been successful in a campaign that privacy advocates deride as an attempt to weaken consumers' rights. But they haven't relented, either, with only two weeks remaining to California's legislative calendar.
The lobbying barrage even has involved their own websites: A page on Facebook and an account on Twitter called Keep the Internet Free began sharing videos this summer encouraging people to spare online advertisers from adhering to some of California's new privacy rules.
One set of ads - running on Twitter beginning mid-August - has been seen already by about 184,000 people, all located in Sacramento, according to Twitter's ad archive. Only by navigating to the website for Keep the Internet Free are its origins revealed: A line at the bottom of the site says it's the "project of the Internet Association," a trade group for Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter.
"I don't think anything we supported weakened the law at all," said Kevin McKinley, the director of government affairs in California for the Internet Association. Rather, he said, the goal had been to make it "easier for businesses to understand."
Facebook declined to comment, and Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Privacy advocates always anticipated such a fight given the unlikely - and messy - circumstances that produced California's novel digital protections in the first place. State legislators adopted the CCPA, as it is known, at lightning speed in 2018, under an agreement that was meant to stave off an even more aggressive ballot initiative.
In doing so, Golden State leaders had accomplished in a matter of days what has eluded their federal counterparts for more than a decade, even in the face of massive privacy scandals at tech giants including Facebook and Google.
But California's haste also resulted in a law riddled with drafting errors and unresolved issues over what kind of information it covers and how consumers could stop the sale of their data. The holes left tech companies, privacy advocates and lawmakers in a rare alignment that they had to update the law this year - a process that opened the door to another round of legislative wrangling.