Viewpoints

Consumer data privacy is important, but California law harms the free press

Consumer privacy proponent Alastair Mactaggart: ‘It’s the first step and the country’s going to follow’

Alastair Mactaggart, a San Francisco real estate developer who spent more than $3 million on a privacy initiative, expresses support for the newly passed California bill.
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Alastair Mactaggart, a San Francisco real estate developer who spent more than $3 million on a privacy initiative, expresses support for the newly passed California bill.

Last year, when the European Union adopted the General Data Protection Regulation – a monumental, highly celebrated new privacy law seeking to provide increased data privacy protection to those in the EU – Europeans lost access to more than 1,000 news sites. These included the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Hartford Courant, a trusted source of news since 1764.

Those outlets went dark in the EU because of the cost and uncertainty of fulfilling the many provisions of the GDPR. In effect, what was supposed to be a law to enhance data privacy for consumers was in fact a shut-down of speech, cutting Europeans off from a vast array of internet-enabled journalism at a time when authoritative reporting is more important than ever.

In its rush to follow Europe and beat the federal government to the finish line in the race to data privacy regulation, California is unfortunately headed down a similarly troubled path for journalism on the web. How could this be?

In an effort to avert an unworkable data privacy law at the ballot box proposed and bankrolled by one millionaire real estate developer from San Francisco, Sacramento was presented with a choice. Either pass a hugely complicated data privacy law in a matter of days – with little public input or process – or allow a ballot initiative to move forward that would have swiftly and immediately crushed many of the day-to-day web and data-based services we use every day.

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The ballot initiative would have broken many of the ways in which internet-enabled services work. It would have derailed the new, highly competitive ad-supported business model that journalists rely on to sustain their activities and allow you to read about what’s happening in your community, and across the world, without hitting a paywall every time you click on a story.

Privacy is of great concern to newspapers and their readers. But the quickly passed and much-regaled California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), touted as California’s GDPR, is now being reviewed as a potential standard for the nation. While the conversation has centered around the swipe this law will take at big tech companies, policymakers have largely ignored the broader internet ecosystem. The law hurts journalists who are competing not only with disinformation on the web but also with other sister journalism organizations that together, relying on advertising revenue, are ushering in a new era of free, accessible, web-based reporting to small niche audiences and mass global readers alike.

The CCPA treats how publishers work with advertisers as “sales” of “personal information.” It essentially puts respected journalistic institutions in the same bucket as data brokers, creating a set of obligations on publishers using the web to distribute their content that are likely to strangle the viability of free, ad-supported journalism on the internet.

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Throughout history, news outlets have kept the feet of the powerful to the fire and given voice to the powerless. Media investigations have exposed workplace harassment, uncovered antitrust violations in business, challenged the government’s claims about victory in Vietnam and brought down a corrupt presidency. Community news outlets are part of the fabric of American society, playing a valuable role in providing information and improving lives in the communities they serve.

News organizations appreciate privacy – particularly the unique rights enshrined in California’s constitution – more than most. Just think about the many sources who often risk life, limb, financial and reputational harm to step forward anonymously with that tip that turns into a break.

Or, that one person who goes against the grain to the blow the whistle against a powerful person or entity on the other side and revolutionizes our society for the better. Respecting privacy is in fact core to our business and we need a functioning media to protect our sources and bring news and opinion to our communities.

But the CCPA misses the mark. It puts accessible, authoritative journalism at risk. The California Legislature has an opportunity and obligation to fix the problems in the CCPA in the coming months, before it becomes effective in 2020. At a time when a free press is increasingly under attack and trusted news is more critical than ever, the exchange of information cannot be compromised.

Jim Ewert serves as general counsel for the California News Publishers Association.

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