GEORGE SKELTON: Internet no longer an infant that needs freedom to innovate

By GEORGE SKELTON
Guest Columnist

(TNS) Real estate developer Alastair Mactaggart became alarmed about the internet’s threat to personal privacy while chatting with a Google engineer at a cocktail party.

“I asked, ‘What’s this deal with all the privacy stuff? Is it anything to be worried about?’” Mactaggart recalls. “I expected him to say, ‘No, it’s not a big deal.’

“Instead he said, ‘If people only knew how much we know about them, they’d really freak out.’”

“I was taken aback,” the developer says. “That got me interested.”

Now the big internet companies are freaking out over what Mactaggart is doing. He’s threatening to jeopardize the operations of Google, Facebook and the like with a ballot initiative that regulates profiteering off their users’ private data.

“Most people don’t understand how pervasive this (data leaking) is and that these big companies know so much about you,” he says. “It’s like a frog boiling in a pot.”

People have become a lot more aware of it this week, however, as two congressional committees grilled Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. The lawmakers particularly wanted to know why Facebook failed to protect the data of 87 million users that fell into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm working for President Trump’s election campaign.

It’s not just the marketing of political candidates that personal data is used for, of course. It’s also employed to market shoes, TV sets, cars, you name it. Companies glean information about your hobbies, age, children, residence, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they use it to target ads at specific groups.

There’s nothing new in this. But with technology, the data is a lot easier to collect. It also can be used for anything, including scary stuff.

It’s all very complex. But the basics are simple: The internet is collecting personal data on people, unbeknownst to them, and spreading it around for big profit. People are becoming more aware of that and starting to demand protection. It seems a timely intersection of one person’s crusade and the public’s desire.

The internet is no longer the infant that needed freedom to innovate and grow unregulated, if it ever was. It has grown into a monster and now needs to be restricted — like the railroads at the turn of the last century and financial institutions during the Great Depression.

“We’re taking on the richest, most powerful industry that the world has ever seen,” says Mactaggart, 51, of Piedmont, Calif., in Alameda County. “Standard Oil was powerful, but they didn’t know everything about you.”

Mactaggart’s initiative would affect companies that earn at least $50 million a year and derive half their annual revenue by peddling personal information.

Consumers would have the right to learn what info is collected. They’d need to be told whether it was disseminated and to whom. They could tell the companies to stop selling or sharing it. They couldn’t be charged more for internet service if they opted out. And they could sue if they were ignored.

Mactaggart must collect 365,880 voter signatures by June 18 to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. He’s the sole financer so far, putting up $2 million-plus.

The timing couldn’t be better with the Facebook controversy.

“This is not a tough sale,” campaign manager Robin Swanson says. “Right now we’re riding a tidal wave.”

Tech companies are expected to spend tens of millions fighting the measure if it qualifies. So far they’ve put up $1 million — $200,000 each from Facebook, Google, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

After its hammering by the congressional committees, however, Facebook announced Wednesday that it wouldn’t contribute more money to the opposition campaign. The company said it wants to focus “on supporting reasonable privacy measures in California.”

That sounds like it might be looking for a legislative compromise — something the rest of the tech industry has shown no interest in.

“We’ve got all our resources focused on the ballot measure,” says Robert Callahan, vice president of government affairs for the Internet Assn. “This is very much a ‘gotcha’ initiative. It’s unworkable. It would strangle the ability of companies to innovate.”

Tech firms especially fear giving opportunistic internet users the ability to sue, he says.

Callahan also contends “it’s dishonest to link” the initiative with the Facebook turmoil. But good luck convincing voters of that.

Opposition campaign spokesman Steve Maviglio says, “This is a national issue. It’s more appropriately settled in Washington. Clearly that’s the way to do it, not state by state.”

But if California had waited for Washington to act, Southern Californians would be choking on smog. And who knows how many beaches would have been fouled by oil spills.

Under a relatively new reform, an initiative proponent can negotiate a legislative compromise and drop the ballot measure. A potential compromise vehicle is a bill by Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Arcadia).

Chau’s measure would restore federal regulations rolled back by President Trump that required internet providers to obtain users’ permission before sharing data.

“It’s our own data,” Chau says, “so we should be the ones able to say what’s collected and how it’s used.”

He dropped the bill last year under stiff opposition from the tech lobby. But it’s still there waiting for a compromise.

Some regulation is needed. The Wild West days of an uncontrolled internet should be history.

Political columnist George Skelton has covered government and politics for more than 50 years and for The Times since 1974. He has been a Times political writer and editor in Los Angeles, Sacramento bureau chief and White House correspondent. He can be reached at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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