For the third time in as many years, the Legislature is considering a bill that would give Washingtonians the power to protect their personal information online. Digital privacy shouldn’t be so hard.
People’s personal information is commonly exploited by companies — and sometimes governments. They track where people go, what they search for and with whom they connect online. Sometimes consumers participate voluntarily, as when people get a DNA ancestry analysis or turn over information for a chance to win a PlayStation5.
The resulting digital profiles enable marketers to target their advertising precisely. Companies buy and sell those profiles. Worse, criminals sometimes get hold of the profiles in data breaches, fueling identity theft and unemployment fraud.
In fairness, consumers often get something in return for sharing their information. The map app that tracks movement also helps with navigation. The search engine that tracks interests also provides useful links. Few would give up the internet and their smartphone in the name of privacy.
European laws give consumers control over what companies may do with their personal information. California has similar rules. But not Washington. Our state is about to fall behind staid Virginia, where the General Assembly recently passed a bill similar to one the Washington House of Representatives let die last year.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle has pushed that Washington Privacy Act for three years. He’s back again with Senate Bill 5062. It would give Washingtonians the right to access, transfer, correct and delete data that companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon compile about them. People also would have the right to opt out of targeted advertising and the sale of their personal data. Those are the same sorts of rights that privacy laws in Europe and California guarantee.
The bill strikes a smart balance between industry flexibility and protecting consumers. For example, rather than allow consumers to sue companies, thereby creating a field day of class action lawsuits that ultimately reward only lawyers, it instead gives enforcement authority to the state attorney general.
Ideally, a Washington State Privacy Act wouldn’t be necessary. A decentralized internet is better regulated by the federal government than by piecemeal laws passed in every state. But Washingtonians’ digital privacy shouldn’t suffer because Congress can’t get its act together.