Why San Franciscans Should Support Proposition B (Privacy First)


In November, San Franciscans will have an opportunity to tell their elected officials they want and demand meaningful privacy regulation that addresses data access, security and law enforcement’s collection and use of personally identifying information.

Introduced by Supervisor Peskin, Privacy First is an amendment to the City’s Charter that mandates binding privacy legislation by May of 2019. San Francisco has been sitting on potential regulation (the kind passed by other Bay Area cities like Oakland, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Davis, Santa Clara County and the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) for more than a year. A veto-proof majority on the Board of Supes will take a bipartisan effort among the City’s progressive and moderate supervisors. That is why a mandate from the City’s voters is so very important in progressing from just talk to action. 

The word privacy is often misunderstood as a first world concern of coddled techies, but what we’re really talking about is safety. The use and misuse of our personal data by both law enforcement (especially in the Trumpian era) and by the voracious data broker industry, increasingly dictates who can get on a plane and leave the country – and who cannot, who gets sent to a detention camp – and who does not – and will increasingly affect access to credit, jobs and health care.

The growth in high tech surveillance and ubiquitous data collection falls most heavily on vulnerable groups already on the wrong side of societal divides. Low-income and homeless people, black people who suffer astronomically high rates of incarceration and police violence, immigrant communities, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent, and activists and dissidents who openly challenge state power are among the most frequently profiled.  Virginia Eubanks, among others, has written eloquently about how people tracking bakes in lack of equity and punishes the most-punished with high tech efficiency in Automating Inequality.

The problems of data sharing and collection are national if not international in scope, and the Trump administration shows us daily how people-hunting can easily become a governmental avocation. The issue does not begin and end with local government.

But what cities and counties can do, and should do, is provide a firewall that makes it much harder for a totalitarian future to take root. By locking down municipal data and looking askance at unfettered sharing, and pressing locally based businesses to improve their privacy practices, cities and counties can provide breathing room for their vulnerable communities and positively contribute to the national conversation about what the limits are going to be.  From the surveillance state of the future, we will all need sanctuary.

The Bay Area has been a national leader in taking protective steps, but San Francisco, the biggest city in the region, has been missing in action. It is time for that to end. Proposition B is the first, and a very important, step in that direction.

Unfortunately, both of San Francisco’s daily newspapers, have come out on the wrong side of this conversation. What’s going on here? As a legacy journalism organization, it pains us that journalism organizations like the Society for Professional Journalists are throwing the safety of vulnerable San Franciscans overboard.

The SPJ objection focuses on one solitary clause in the charter amendment that gives the Board of Supes limited power to amend previous voter-approved ordinances as long as the amendments are consistent with the original voter-approved intent of the ordinance.

San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance,  passed in 1999, is the oldest in the country. It is now 19 years old. Transparency advocates are worried that the clause in Prop B will somehow allow the City Attorney and Board of Supervisors to weaken or water down the existing ordinance and point to a long history of tension between the SunshineTask Force and the City’s political class.

But while we are big advocates of healthy suspicion when dealing with all political bodies, the allegation of a hidden purpose for Prop B doesn’t pass the sniff test. If a wily City Attorney was planning a wholesale assault on the Sunshine Ordinance, about the last thing in the world they would write into the City Charter is a requirement that ties their hands to the voter’s original intent at the time they passed the ordinance. That’s a very high bar. As an action, it would make no sense if that was the true purpose of the ordinance. It’s not. And Prop B does not permit amendments that would reduce governmental transparency.

Sunshine advocates themselves have no intention of leaving the original 1999 Sunshne language untouched. A look at the San Franciscans for Sunshine website shows transparency advocates proposing no less than 100 different changes to the Sunshine Ordinance language.

The group proposes a citywide ballot initiative to make all of these changes. That is an expensive proposition and one with no guarantee of success, given the changing nature of San Francisco’s voters.

The changes are inevitable, because the 1999 ordinance, unlike most municipal commission enabling legislation, reserves seats on the Task Force for nominees from specific nonprofits, among them the League of Women Voters, and Society of Professtional Journalists-Norcal (SPJ). A third organization with a designated seat, New America Media, has been defunct for a year.

The proposed new ballot initiative from San Franciscans for Sunshine doubles down on this model, adding a third designated seat for SPJ-Norcal and new designated seats for the First Amendment Center, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Norcal Media Workers Guild, and the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, making 9 of the 11 seats on the Sunshine body designated for nominees from specific nonprofits.. In full disclosure, one of the 9 seats is designated for the author’s organization (Media Alliance) and our choice of nominee.

But if it comes down to a choice between setting out a strong voter mandate for meaningful privacy protections and getting a seat on a municipal commission, our choice is clear.

Privacy First.




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