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California’s Privacy Bill for Social Networks – Good idea or gigantic mistake?

Last Updated: April 18, 2015

It was called the Social Networking Privacy Act (Senate Bill 242). This bill, introduced by Senator Ellen Corbett in early February, would have brought some radical changes to Facebook’s business model (as well as a host of other companies).

Recently the California legislature rejected this bill.

If it had passed, the new law would have required the following:

  • The default privacy settings are set to “private” when you register a new profile or account. This would mean a new online profile would only publicly display the person’s name and city of residence. Patrons could change those settings if they chose.
  • Privacy settings would have to be available in an “easy-to-use format” and policies written in “plain language.” The privacy settings would have to be accepted or adjusted before a profile could be created by a new user.
  • Social networks would need to remove information about a minor requested by that minor’s parents within 48 hours of the request. Failure to remove the information could result in a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

A letter sent to Sen. Ellen Corbett, signed by Facebook, the Internet Alliance, Google, Twitter, Skype, Match.com, eHarmony, Yahoo, and others, strongly opposed the bill. The letter sites the following reasons:

  • The bill “significantly undermines the ability of Californians to make informed and meaningful choices about use of their personal data.” Essentially, the letter argues users aren’t likely to make informed decisions about how their personal information is displayed and used until after they have used the online service. Until familiar with the service, the context of the privacy choices is abstract and difficult to understand. The letter states, “A description of all availability privacy and visibility options to a consumer who has never used the service in question could take thousands of words and up to half an hour to read,” whereas the current privacy notices on Facebook or other networks are short and easy for laypersons to understand.
  • The bill does not demonstrate the need for this change. The letter argues there is no demonstration of harm from the current system. It cites research done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project which found that two-thirds of social network users have made adjustments to their privacy settings. The study also found that only 8% of social network users have asked to have information about them be removed, and there is no indication these requests are being denied en mass.
  • The bill will do “significant damage to California’s vibrant Internet commerce industry.” The letter points to billions of dollars in e-commerce revenue and 162,000 people employed in the state. The bill would limit growth of this industry, increase unwarranted civil liabilities, create uncertainty for investors, stifle innovation, and increase operation costs. All of this would incentivize e-commerce industries to expand their operations “anywhere but California.”
  • The bill is so restrictive it would infringe on free speech. Users of a social network would have to make a conscious choice to deactivate imposed privacy settings, which places “a barrier between an existing California user of a social networking site and her ability to continue speaking as desired.” Furthermore, the way the bill is currently worded, users could request information posted by others be deleted. For example, hundreds of Californians can rightly claim the California Senate as their place of employment. Under SB 242, any one of those individuals would have the right to demand that any other mention of California Senate by another user be taken down.
  • The bill is unworkable given the global nature of the Internet. The letter claims “every covered site in the world would need to change their practices in order to comply with California law.” This, they claim, deals with federal constitutional issues.

As is the case with debates about Net Neutrality law, this bill comes with noble intentions, but in its current form may be another example of the government’s limitations in realistically regulating the ever-changing nature of technology, business, and society.

What do you think about this bill?

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