A recent editorial in The Seattle Times had an excellent headline: “Washington needs strong privacy law.” As part of the Tech Equity Coalition — a group of civil liberties and civil rights-focused organizations and individuals working to hold technology accountable — we agree that Washington needs a strong privacy law. Unfortunately, the rest of the editorial endorses the same approach that has already failed twice. Instead of repeating its mistakes, Washington’s Legislature needs to take a different path, starting with a focus on people and our rights, instead of corporations’ wish lists.
The legislature’s first attempt at a privacy law was in 2019. The Senate passed a weak, corporate-friendly bill. The House listened to privacy advocates and community groups, and passed a significantly stronger version to protect consumers. Negotiations between the chambers collapsed.
Our privacy as Washingtonians remained unprotected.
Flash forward to 2020. It was déjà vu. The Senate again passed a weak, corporate-friendly bill — even despite Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s opinion that it was unenforceable. The House again listened to privacy advocates and community groups, and passed a significantly stronger version to protect consumers. Negotiations between the chambers again collapsed.
Our privacy as Washingtonians remains unprotected.
Will history repeat itself in 2021? The draft legislation state Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) shared in September — which The Times editorial board endorsed — is very similar to last year’s deeply-flawed bill. Problems include that the bill:
■ Allows companies to collect, use and sell people’s data for almost any purpose;
■ Prohibits local jurisdictions from passing stronger privacy laws; and
■ Prevents Washingtonians from any legal recourse or recovery when companies violate their privacy rights.
In short, the proposed bill — like the bills from 2019 and 2020 — does not adequately protect the privacy interests of Washingtonians.
It is worth highlighting the breadth and diversity of the opposition to the corporate-friendly data-privacy bills in 2019 and 2020. Locally, via the Tech Equity Coalition, community groups, including the ACLU of Washington, Japanese American Citizens League — Seattle Chapter, One America, InterIm CDA, Real Change, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, MAPS-AMEN (American Muslim Empowerment Network), Densho, John T. Williams Organizing Committee, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, CAIR Washington and La Resistencia, all opposed it. So did Indivisible groups across the state, and national consumer and privacy organizations, including Consumer Federation of America, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, EPIC and EFF.
These groups also suggested improvements, many of which the House included in its stronger 2020 bill. But tech companies make a lot of money using personal data. From their perspective, unenforceability is a desired feature. So it is not surprising that big tech lobbied heavily in favor of the weak bills — and proposed them as models for other states.
After the failures of the last two years, there is a lot of pressure on legislators to finally pass something. But if legislators ignore privacy advocates and community groups and pass a weak, unenforceable bill, our privacy as Washingtonians will remain unprotected.
It does not have to be this way.
The Tech Equity Coalition has been working to create a data-privacy bill that truly supports people’s privacy and civil rights. This bill, the People’s Privacy Act, will soon be introduced. Through this bill, our legislators have an opportunity to set the gold standard for privacy protection by:
■ Giving people meaningful control by prohibiting companies from using, selling, or sharing data without our affirmative “opt-in” consent;
■ Ensuring that any legislation that passes does not restrict local jurisdictions from advancing stronger privacy laws where needed;
■ Empowering people to take companies to court if they violate our data rights.
We are excited to support a community-driven, consumer-focused alternative to a weak, corporate-backed data-privacy bill in the 2021 legislative session.
We hope you also support the People’s Privacy Act as the best way to ensure that Washington achieves a strong, people-centric privacy law.