Comment: We need a data privacy law; but Senate bill isn’t it

Unless significant changes are made, SB 5062 won’t provide real protections for our information.

By Norma Smith, Jon Pincus and Linda Wehrman / For The Herald

For the third year in a row, legislators are attempting to pass a bill that claims to defend people’s data privacy. But instead of providing Washingtonians the rights needed to protect our personal information, the bill leaves us powerless and uninformed.

It claims to grant us rights (regarding only certain categories of information), then prevents us from accessing justice when those rights are violated. It is a great bill for Big Tech, and a failure for individual freedom and real data privacy.

Our legislators need to hear from us now: Dramatically improve Senate Bill 5062 or kill it.

The authors of this commentary met last year. The Senate had passed the even more deceptive Washington Privacy Act 47-1. One of us was a Republican state legislator on the House committee who’s job it was to try and fix the bad bill. The others were grass-roots activists with Indivisible, a progressive coalition. We disagree about a lot of issues, but this issue brings together ordinary folks across the political spectrum; after all, it’s our data and our rights at the heart of this debate.

Last session, House legislators listened to Washingtonians across the state who told us they wanted us to protect their privacy, civil rights groups who told us how badly people would be harmed, and experts from consumer and privacy groups who told us how to improve the hot mess the Senate had given us. We did a lot of work to make it better. The bill we passed wasn’t perfect, but it fixed a lot of the problems, and it would have given Washingtonians meaningful protection.

But the Senate rejected our improvements. So nothing passed, and the lawlessness continues.

Things have changed a lot since last year. The pandemic means that for many people even more of our life is online. And the harmful consequences are the stuff of daily news stories: emergency room patients being targeted by personal injury lawyers, cell phone customers having their location data shared and used for nefarious purposes, app users having highly personal information about their location, political views, health and ethnicity sold to third parties; you can add your own stories to the list. The weak protections in this bill don’t protect us; or our children, parents, and friends who may be at even more risk than we are.

This year, sponsors of the bill again claim they want to help solve these problems, yet propose a bill draft that has drawn support only from Big Tech and corporate lobbyists. How bad is it? It doesn’t cover student data or employee data. It lets tech companies exploit your data pretty much

however they want without your consent. You can’t sue tech companies, or anybody else, if they break the law and invade your data privacy. It’s filled with loopholes and exceptions that neuter the protections and rights it claims to give — and gives BigTech companies, with their hundreds of lawyers, all kinds of ways to dodge any attempt to enforce it.

Our data privacy is vitally important to each of us. In an online ecosystem, Washingtonians share volumes of details about our lives. And every bit of data required, or posted on social media, or provided by our consumption of news and entertainment, is utilized by potentially thousands of companies to grow their wealth, influence and capability to manipulate; most often without our knowledge or consent. Every day, companies and government entities violate our data privacy without repercussion from any meaningful state or federal laws.

It’s critical to remember that the second substitute for SB 5062 prevents individuals from accessing justice when companies violate their data privacy. Despite repeated objections from the state Office of the Attorney General, the bill relies solely on the AG’s office for enforcement with a wholly inadequate budget.

Because the bill lacks meaningful enforcement, it is widely opposed by consumer advocates and community members — and supported by Big Tech.

Proponents of the Washington Privacy Act claim that their bill would be better than no bill at all. We disagree. Both this year and last year, legislators introduced much stronger competing bills that would empower consumers and provide meaningful enforcement mechanisms. Passing a bad bill that only gives the illusion of privacy is worse than not doing anything.

The people of Washington deserve real data privacy legislation that empowers individuals and respects our constitutional rights.

Norma Smith represented the 10th Legislative District in the House of Representatives from 2008 through 2020, and served as the ranking Republican on the House Innovation, Technology and Economic Development Committee. Jon Pincus is chief technology officer of The Nexus Today, former software architect and executive at Microsoft and other tech companies, and a leader of Indivisible Plus Washington. Linda Wehrman is a retired nurse, a mom, and a co-leader of Indivisible Whidbey.

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