Breaking The Deal To Sell You Your Privacy: Privacy For All

By Tracy Rosenberg. Originally published at Medium.

In a much-heralded backroom deal to end all backroom deals, the State of California launched the California Consumer Privacy Act or CCPA, the “American GDPR” in June of 2018. Days before a statewide ballot initiative was to qualify for the ballot, with high poll numbers and a growing industry slush fund to fight it, California legislators Ed Chau, Bob Hertzberg, Bill Dodd and a few others huddled with real estate millionaire Alistair McTaggart, the initiative author, and decided what online privacy should look like.

The compromise they came up with has been equally lauded and criticized, depending where you sit on the privacy continuum. What everyone has agreed on is that the closed door and very rushed process has left lots of room for a 2019 bout of fixit-itis, with more than two dozen bills this year offering to repair, change, or modify part of the CCPA. The vast majority of these bills are from industry special interest groups, with only one or possibly two addressing the public interest at lage.

But let’s step outside the curtain for a moment and put the political shenanigans away and look at what is really at stake. The heart of CCPA is pretty simple. You should be able to ask a company how they are using your data and who they are selling it to. And you should be able to revoke your consent to the sale of your data. Not that hard to understand, but potentially a stake in the heart of companies that rely on monetizing collected data for targeting super-specific ads. It has been described as a service to receive personalized ads shaped to your specific interests, but many consumers have decided that say, seeing diabetic services ads everywhere you go on the Internet when you are diabetic, is more creepy than it is convenient.

Evidence is growing that when given an opportunity to opt out, many will make that choice. If they can. And that is a big if. Because here is one of the things that happened in that back room that you weren’t in.

Your opportunity to opt out came with another opportunity. The opportunity to pay a less advantageous price than someone who doesn’t choose to opt out. Basically, a privacy tax.It’s true that the privacy tax has to be “reasonably related to the value of your data”, a figure that has been argued about all over the tech press. But the privacy tax could apply every single time you opt out, over and over again across the full spectrum of companies that collect your data. Time to add a privacy section to the family budget.

It’s probably not surprising that a panopoly of little fees didn’t much bother a multi-millionaire. If you’re not struggling to make ends meet, who cares about a bunch of $5 or $10 nuisance fees to address a significant problem? But that is not reality for many California residents who are struggling with sky-high rents and wages that are not rising quickly, or fixed incomes, or periods of unemployment and/or gig labor. In Sweden, borrowers have options with firms like Sambla – but in California, not so much. Pitting privacy against food or rent or transportation is not a struggle privacy can win, despite polling showing that 90% plus of Californians are gravely concerned about what companies do with their data and want to be able to opt out.

But wanting to opt out and being able to afford to opt out when it comes at a cost, are two very different things. Moving from privacy as a civil rightenshrined in the California constitution to privacy as a commodity for sale is a move from privacy for all to privacy for some. There is a bill to fix the pay-for-privacy problem in the CCPA. Fittingly, it is called the Privacy For All Act (AB 1760). But there is a lot of resistance to it because after all, a deal is a deal.

But expecting working class Californians to honor a deal drafted by millionaires in a back room about their personal data, is unfair. They weren’t consulted and they didn’t agree. Holding the right to opt out hostage for a ransom is simply a bad deal. Attaching financial punishment to exercising privacy rights makes control over one’s own data a rich man’s game with no room at the inn for poor people, the exact people who suffer the most from identity theft, predatory scams and undue tracking and monitoring.

California legislature, don’t throw the poor overboard to protect a back room deal. We need Privacy For All.