California Internet Privacy Bill: Facebook, Google Explain 'Strong' Opposition

A coalition of web giants including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Skype announced they oppose a landmark California bill seeking to drastically revamp social networking sites' privacy protections, arguing in a letter that the proposed legislation is unconstitutional, a threat to businesses and would actually decrease users' privacy.

Bill "SB 242" would, among other mandates, require users of such sites to specify their privacy settings as part of the registration process and force sites to institute default privacy settings that share no more than a user's name and city of residence. Social networking sites would also be required to delete any information a user asks to have removed within 48 hours of the request.

In a letter to state Sen. Ellen Corbett (D), who proposed the legislation, an alliance of Internet companies, trade groups and other tech organizations said they "strongly opposed" the legislation on the grounds that it was unnecessary -- "SB 242 gratuitously singles out social networking sites without demonstration of any harm," they wrote -- and, by requiring privacy settings to be selected prior to using the service, would force users to make uninformed choices.

The bill’s opponents also claimed the law would harm California's technology sector by raising costs and "dramatically [limiting] social networking sites' growth potential," and violate the right to freedom of speech by restricting users' ability to "continue speaking as desired."

Corbett rejected the notion that the bill was unconstitutional and defended the proposal as “straightforward” effort to ensure consumers have control over what information is available about them online, understand how their data can be used, and maintain their privacy, which is protected under the California constitution.

“You’ll hear all sorts of characterizations made to confuse people on this measure,” Corbett said of her opponents’ arguments. “I’m up for a very tough fight. I have heard from so many people who are grateful that we’re trying to protect their privacy and security and protect young people from harm.”

Yet even privacy advocates see problems with the current version of the legislation. Many expressed concern that SB 242 would interfere with teenagers’ First Amendment rights by empowering parents to request social networking sites remove information a minor has posted online. They also noted that requiring social networking sites to respond to all requests to delete user data could raise costs dramatically and come with technical challenges, such as verifying a parent is who he claims to be.

“The bill is noble in intention, but incredibly naïve in implementation and would drag social networks into the role of social worker, mediating between 16- and 17-year-olds and their parents,” said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum in an email to the Huffington Post. “Social networks need to do a better job explaining their privacy settings, but this bill is far too simplistic in its efforts to deal with the complicated interpersonal relationships involved.”

Despite taking issue with some of the language and specifications included in the proposal, privacy experts also saw merit with the bill's overall aims and lauded efforts to increase protections for users’ online data.

“Making consumers more aware of what they’re sharing and putting that information up front is a good idea,” said Justin Brookman, director of the Project on Consumer Privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

He added that he disagreed with the argument that forcing users to set privacy protections when first signing up for a site would in turn decrease their privacy.

“I think the idea of telling people what is going on and giving them control over their information from the beginning is a good idea for social networks and others places as well,” Brookman said.