Any little girl would love a My Friend Cayla doll.
It has wavy blond hair, a cute French braid, big blue eyes and impossibly long lashes. So sweet. And it talks, though not with one of those pull strings of yesteryear. This darling piece of plastic is Bluetooth-enabled.
“Cayla can understand and respond to you in real-time about almost anything,” Genesis Toys, the Los Angeles firm that markets the device, says on its website, though unlike My Friend Cayla, Genesis did not respond to me in real-time. “Ask her questions about herself, people, places, and things! She’s the smartest friend you will ever have! … She is not just a doll... she’s a real friend!”
Evidently, Cayla can be hacked by who knows who for who knows what purpose. My Friend Cayla is not your friend. It is creepy.
In Germany, the agency that oversees telecommunications concluded earlier this year that My Friend Cayla is like a spy, infiltrating children’s bedrooms, gathering data and transmitting it. German authorities urged parents to destroy the doll.
In this country, the reaction hasn’t been nearly as swift. In December, the Electronic Privacy Information Center complained to the Federal Trade Commission that Cayla violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. Six months later, the FTC hasn’t acted. Nor did the FTC bother to respond to me.
In Sacramento, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson is pushing Senate Bill 327, to add some protection for people who buy Internet-connected devices. Manufacturers would have to offer clear disclosure about what the things do, get permission before collecting consumer information, and have safeguards against data breaches.
The Santa Barbara Democrat last month got her bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she chairs. But she could count to maybe 11 votes in the 40-seat Senate, far fewer than the 21-vote threshold needed for passage. Rather than have the bill fail, she has put off a vote, probably until next year.
Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media’s founder, is a lawyer, Stanford teacher, brother of billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and not a political neophyte. Yet he was stunned by what came of Jackson’s bill. Shameful and disgusting were among the words he used to describe its demise.
If Cayla were politically astute, it could answer why privacy measures fare so poorly in the California Legislature. Jackson, however, has been schooled.
“The fact is that money plays a very big role in politics,” Jackson said in her Capitol office, a framed copy of Bill of Rights on the wall over her shoulder. “When people talk about regaining the integrity of the process, we’re not going to do it until we get money out.”
Opponents of Jackson’s bill include the California Chamber of Commerce and Technet, which represents technology companies, along with trade associations that represent phone companies, manufacturers, retailers, video game developers, medical and fitness devices, appliance manufacturers, driverless cars and internet companies.
Groups that opposed Jackson’s bill spent no less than $1.45 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2017. The Chamber of Commerce, one of the most influential lobby groups in the Capitol, spent $7 million on lobbying in the 2015-16 legislative session, and $2 million on state campaigns in 2016.
A staff analysis of Jackson’s bill spells out the economic implications, quoting a tech executive saying the Internet of Things generates $19 billion in profit. The number of Internet-connected dolls, FitBits, glucose monitors, microwaves, cars and so forth will grow to 25 billion by 2020.
Republicans legislators decry government intrusions into our lives, but have little problem with Internet devices that worm their way into our lives. Democrats claim to be protective of civil rights, but don’t support privacy legislation that restricts tech companies.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Jackson propped a Cayla and other innocent-looking but intrusive toys up on the witness table.
“I would never buy a doll that could do that and connect to the Internet,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat. “It’s creepy to the extreme. I can’t stand looking at it.”
But echoing corporate opponents’ arguments, Hertzberg said Jackson’s bill could have a “chilling effect” on innovation, and unintended consequences. No doubt, SB 327 can be refined.
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps parents make sense of media and technology, is the inspiration for Jackson’s bill. Common Sense seeks to point parents to age-appropriate movies, and inform them about safe toys. My Friend Cayla is on the don’t buy list.
Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media’s founder, is a lawyer, Stanford teacher, brother of billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and not a political neophyte. Yet he was stunned by what came of Jackson’s bill. Shameful and disgusting were among the words he used to describe its demise. He said he is contemplating a privacy-related initiative, a tactic that worked on a similar privacy issue many years ago.
In the dark time before Facebook, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, was a state senator pushing legislation to require that financial institutions give consumers an explicit right to opt-out of having their financial information traded and sold.
An Internet startup, E-Loan, embraced Speier’s bill as it sought to gain market share by offering consumers something mainstream lenders did not: assurances their personal information would not be sold.
In 2003, after four years of trying, E-Loan founder Chris Larsen paid $1 million to gather sufficient signatures to place a privacy initiative on the ballot. Magically, the banks and credit card companies laid down their arms. Speier remembers lobbyists asking that she delay a vote for a day or so. Why?
“ ‘We have to talk to our members so they know they can vote for this.’ Our members. They literally controlled their votes,” Speier said.
Jackson was in the Assembly in 2003, and among Speier’s allies. The legislation passed. But the fight moved to Congress, where the financial services industry won legislation pre-empting state authority. If anything, Jackson says, political money is more influential now than it was then.
So you can accept the terms spelled out by corporations, go to Amazon, type in your credit card number, and buy a creepy-cut Cayla for $119, plus shipping. Or disconnect.