Skip to content Skip to footer

California Internet Privacy Bill Faces Big Opposition

Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-California). (Photo: dsleeter_2000 / Flickr)

Internet behemoths Facebook, Google, Skype, and Twitter have joined forces to oppose an online privacy bill in California that would prevent the companies from displaying users’ personal information without explicit permission.

The bill, SB 242, introduced by Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-California) last February, initially served to create strict safeguards for minors who wanted to utilize the websites' social networking apparatus. But the legislation was amended to focus on all users after Facebook argued that the bill would encourage minors to lie about their age.

The most recent version of the bill would also require users to choose their privacy settings while creating an account with one of the social networking sites. If a user wants information removed, the site would be required to delete it within 48 hours of the request. Failing to do so, according to the bill, would result in fines of up to $10,000 for each charge.

“You shouldn't have to sign in and give up your personal information before you get to the part where you say, 'Please don't share my personal information,'” Corbett said of the bill, also known as the Social Networking Privacy Act.

In a letter to Corbett, the coalition of opponents said that the legislation was unnecessary and unconstitutional, and could potentially harm California’s technology industry.

The bill “would significantly undermine the ability of Californians to make informed and meaningful choices about use of their personal data, and unconstitutionally interfere with the right to free speech… while doing significant damage to California’s vibrant Internet commerce industry at a time when the state can least afford it,” the letter stated. “[It] gratuitously singles out social networking sites without demonstration of any harm.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment, but spokesman Andrew Noyes told the SF Chronicle that the bill “is a serious threat both to Facebook’s business in California and to meaningful California consumers’ choices about use of personal data.”

As of April 2010, Facebook’s privacy policy states that the term “general information,” which is available to third party applications that users choose to connect with, “includes you and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the 'Everyone' privacy setting.”

“The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to 'Everyone',” the policy states. If a user chooses not to change their privacy settings, their status updates, photos, biographical information, and relationships are available to anyone on the Internet – not just other Facebook users.

Likewise, Twitter’s most recent privacy policy from November 2010 states, “[our] default is almost always to make the information you provide public… [which] is broadly and instantly disseminated.” Twitter also notes that users “consent to the collection, transfer, manipulation, storage, disclosure and other uses” of their information, such as when Twitter engages third party applications, but that users are provided with tools to “access or modify the personal information you provided to us and are associated with your account.”

Steve DelBianco, executive director of online business coalition NetChoice, said SB 242 uses an overly-broad definition of “social network,” threatens free speech and discourages websites from being responsible corporate citizens. “There are ways for policymakers to impact online safety,” DelBianco said. Opposing the bill is “a vote for preserving free speech and providing incentives for websites to promote child safety.”

Other companies that joined Facebook, Google, Skype, and Twitter in opposing SB 242 include Yahoo!, Sprint, eHarmony, and other members of the Internet Alliance.

Internet Alliance executive director Tammy Cota wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week opposing the bill, saying the measure would “force users to make decisions about privacy and visibility of all information well before they even used the service for the first time, and in such a manner that they are less likely to pay attention and process the information.”

But despite widespread opposition, California’s Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure on May 16 by a vote of 3 to 2 and the bill will now head to the Senate for a vote.

“Computer systems and the Internet have brought consumers many conveniences,” the committee wrote in its analysis. “But these innovative methods of information sharing can pose a serious threat to our privacy and security.”

“[It] is unclear how requiring that default settings be set to private would unduly restrict the free expression of users who elect to disseminate their information.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.