If Companies Support Transparency, Why are Their Industry Groups Lobbying Against It?

Apr 11, 2013
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

Tech companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft publicly proclaim their support for user transparency. And data broker Acxiom has recently announced plans to let consumers see what data the company collects about them. So why are the industry groups that represent these companies lobbying against AB 1291, the California Right to Know Act, a bill to give consumers transparency about how their data is being collected and shared? It's mighty odd.

The Right to Know Act is about transparency, pure and simple: Californians would ask a company how their personal information has been collected or disclosed, and the company would answer. It builds on existing law and updates consumer protections for the digital era.

The business press gets it. The Wall Street Journal notes that this bill "highlights how lawmakers are seeking to update privacy laws" and points out that it would update a law enacted a decade ago when the online world was radically different. And PC World explains that the bill gives people access to personal information and does not set any limits on the amount of data a company can collect or how it can be shared.

And the White House, Federal Trade Commission, and California Attorney General get it too. Each has called for data transparency and access for consumers.

So why are some industry groups opposing this basic transparency bill?

Perhaps companies don't really want you to know how they're using (or even misusing) your data. Or they just don't want you to understand the real cost of "free" services. Or maybe they just say they support transparency to undermine the passage of other types of privacy laws that go further and actually control data collection or use.

Of course, no one would admit to that. Instead, some industry groups claim that the Right to Know Act is unworkable – but isn't that always what they say? Ten years ago industry groups unsuccessfully tried to stop a California law that requires companies to tell you about company data breaches. Turns out data breach notification laws have proved entirely workable in 46 states and have wound up benefiting companies as well as consumers.

There is plenty of evidence that the Right to Know Act is equally workable. In fact, companies already provide European Union consumers with access to their personal information. And Tim Suther, Acxiom's Chief Marketing Officer, explained that the company is prepped to start enabling consumer access to its data because "we live in an era where transparency is important." (Interestingly, he is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Direct Marketing Association, an industry group opposing the Right to Know Act as "unworkable" and of "minimal benefit.")

So if Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg is "committed to making Facebook the leader in transparency and control around privacy" and Brad Smith, General Counsel at Microsoft knows that "we can not have privacy if there is no transparency," and Tim Suther believes "transparency is important," it is time for them to show it by supporting the Right to Know Act. And California lawmakers should not allow themselves to be duped by some industry groups recycling old arguments that just don't hold water.

The Right to Know Act heads to its first vote soon. Contact your state legislator today and urge them to support AB 1291. You have a right to know what happens to your personal information.

Nicole A. Ozer is the Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director with the ACLU of Northern California.