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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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WA legislature and Congress in crosshairs over consumer privacy

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Lawmakers in both Washingtons are in the consumer-privacy crosshairs amid a growing awareness, and thus anger, of how little people are able to keep private about themselves.  
 
While both the Washington Legislature and Congress are deliberating bills the lawmakers hope can be crafted to satisfy both tech giants and consumers, there is an increasingly uncomfortable sense among legislators at both the state and federal levels that they had better not rile consumers further on the privacy issue.
 
And interestingly, part of the script for how this struggle between the tech industry and individuals over privacy plays out may be written in Washington state, either with the legislative tax hammer that is almost uniquely available in this state or by an emerging Bellevue company that hopes to take the privacy issue out of the hands of the tech giants.  
 
The tax tool is the state's business and occupation tax, a use tax on gross receipts rather than profits, which can and has been imposed in a punitive manner. The business start-up company is Helm, which has created a relatively inexpensive device, about the size of a router, that lets consumers send and receive emails from their own domain. More on both the b&o and Helm later.
 
At the federal level, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is proposing sweeping new legislation that would empower consumers to control their personal information, create radical transparency into how corporations use and share their data, and impose harsh fines, even prison terms for executives at corporations that misuse Americans' data.
 
As Wyden has put it: "Today's economy is a giant vacuum for your personal information - Everything you read, everywhere you go, everything you buy and everyone you talk to is sucked up in a corporation's database. But individual Americans know far too little about how their data is collected, how it's used and how it's shared,"  
 
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said he expects the state legislature to address privacy in the upcoming session, saying he has begun discussions with tech leaders in the state "about a privacy policy that is consistent with innovation and also consistent with fundamental rights of privacy." And Inslee expressed confidence about getting a policy, probably in this session, that will be pleasing to innovators and consumers."
 
"Pleasing" to the big tech companies like Facebook, Google and hometown Amazon is an almost amusing word for a governor to use when "acceptable" to the tech giants is the best that is likely to happen with any state legislation that constrains the manner in which personal information is being collected and used.
 
That's particularly true with citizen pressure on lawmakers here and in other states after California's Assembly and Senate overwhelmingly passed a far-reaching piece of legislation called the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA). The measure largely mirrors protections offered to European citizens under the recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is likely to drastically change the ways that American companies store and trade in consumer information for Californians.
 
The law allows Californians to ask firms collecting and selling data: what do you collect, why and with whom do you share it? And it allows California residents to opt out of the sale of their data and to request deletion of their data.
 
And in addition to Wyden's zeal on behalf of privacy, the passage of CCPA is spurring the tech industry to seek Congressional action on something they could at least reluctantly accept to avoid what they are protesting as a possible "patchwork approach to privacy policy" if each state enacts its own version.
 
So in the event Washington lawmakers approve legislation that makes its citizens happy about new state protections for privacy, and then Congress approves a law that offers dramatically less protection that supersedes what states like California, and Washington, have put in place, how can this state preserve the protections it will have given its citizens.?
 
A suggestion, borne or my political-writing background: The state, led by its Democrat Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson, could put in place a privacy policy that companies would be told they must comply with or a special B&O tax rate of some compelling amount, maybe even 25 percent, will apply to those firms not honoring our privacy policy.  
 
Would Ferguson have the courage to confront major tech companies either located here, like Amazon or having a significant presence here like Google and Facebook? Given the fact that he'd like to be Inslee successor as governor and that his key role is first and foremost "preserving the rights of the individual," he could fatally impact his political hopes if he failed to follow the public demands on this issue. And in fact, if he failed to take a protective step demanded by citizens, they could use the initiative process to create a special b&o tax rate themselves.
 
This wouldn't be a law, since the federal government if Congress passes a privacy act, would likely have pre-empted states passing laws governing privacy. But legislation imposing a different b&o tax and the significantly higher rate has a long tradition protected by decisions of the Washington State Supreme Court.
 
Would what I am talking about be legal blackmail? Consider that there are almost three dozen B&O classifications with rates often unexplainable, like parimutuel wagering having a rate of .0013 and gambling contests of chance, .015. The latter, incidentally, is the rate for "service and other activities," which includes professional firms like attorneys as well as consultants-the rate I pay.
 
And how law firms came to be taxed at the highest rate is instructive for how lawmakers in Washington can use the b&o. In the 1993 session, lawmakers sought to extend the sales tax to the legal profession but the attorneys brought their lobbyists to the fray and successfully defeated the effort. Presto, came the highest b&o tax suddenly applying to attorneys, just about tripling their tax.
 
I once asked the late Gov, Mike Lowry if that came about as punishment by a Democratic governor (him) and Democratic legislature and he let out one of his classic shoulder bouncing laughs.
 
When I discussed the privacy issue with Bellevue-based research analyst Jim Hebert, he noted that Congress has been through a major privacy-invasion crisis and solution before. He was referring to the reforms in consumer credit law to combat excesses of the credit agencies.  
 
"The agencies collected information on you, kept it and sold it to banks and others, with statistics disclosing that 40 percent of the information was wrong and no one knew it," Hebert said.  
 
The outcome was legislation enacted requiring that all such data the credit agencies collect is now turned over to a third-party organization that polices the data's accuracy and makes it available to consumers.
 
"Credit bureaus weren't put out of business or even really damaged by the corrective legislation," Hebert noted.
 
So back to Helm, the Bellevue company that was the idea of  Giri Sreenivas and Dirk Sigurdson, two entrepreneurs who had sold a security startup and raised a $4 million seed round from top venture capital firms last year.
 
"Right now, nearly all of the data that comprises your online life is stored in a massive data center," Sreenivas wrote in a blog he posted. "You don't own it. You can't see it, you can't touch it - and you don't know who can. That dream of a device that would make data 'ownable' to the individual - not a stranger - is what led to Helm."
 
Their device connects to a home network and pairs with a mobile app that lets users create their own domain name, passwords, and recovery keys. Helm supports standard protocols and works with regular email clients such as Outlook or the Mail app, with encryption protecting the connection between the device and the apps.
 
A key challenge for privacy champions is the apparent uncertainty about the extent to which younger generations will care enough to get into the fray as opponents of the big tech data collectors, although a recent survey I saw said there's growing disillusionment among people in their twenties and thirties surrounding social media.
 
But in a comment that leaders of the privacy battle would find disappointing, one of the millennials in the survey was quoted as saying "I feel like our generation has been raised to not be so worried about online privacy because it just feels like there is no alternative. Ultimately I do value privacy in theory, but it feels like it's a cost of participating in society. Not just online."

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An amusing post-script to last week's column
 
An email from a Russian friend provides a post-script to last week's column in which I suggested the formation of a business that, for a fee, could crowd the fringe in congressional or legislative races, helping ensure the re-election of moderates of either party.
 
Natalia Blokhina, who helps guide a Moscow-based fund management company that invests in U.S. companies, as well as companies elsewhere, sent me an email saying it was an interesting column.
 
Because I sought to help introduce Natalia to companies in which her fund might invest, I emailed her back asking if her fund might be interested in being an investor if the idea of a Save Our Middle LLC took hold.
 
"It would be interesting to tell people we have Russian investors in our company," I joked to her.
 
"We wouldn't want to be involved in a political company," she replied quite seriously.
 
You can search the column I did about Natalia at Flynn's Harp: Natalia Blokhina.

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