It is not a coincidence that an internet search for, say, “new cars” will result in car ads constantly popping up during your online adventures. The same probably goes for uranium ore (yes, it is available on Amazon) — but we haven’t tried that one.
Personal information is routinely tracked, sold for big profits and exploited by digital companies — and sometimes governments. Profiles of your interests and searches are compiled and used to aim targeted ads and political propaganda at what is assessed to be a receptive audience. The connectivity of the internet means that our every online keystroke likely is being tracked; and the advent of smartphones means that now even our movements likely are being recorded.
World Wide Web, indeed. And we all are caught in it to one extent or another.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this; nobody is forcing you to purchase uranium ore, regardless of how many ads you see. And there are benefits, with products and information that might interest you automatically delivered to your computer screen.
But consumers should be provided with tools to control where their information goes and how it is shared. The most tech savvy among us know how to protect their online privacy. The rest of us have little ability to do so — and little understanding of how it works.
Because of that, the Legislature should consider the Washington Privacy Act, Senate Bill 5062, which currently is in committee. The measure would give Washington residents the ability to access, transfer, correct and delete data that Big Tech companies — such as Google and Facebook — compile. It also would give them the right to opt out of targeted advertising and the sale of their personal data.
Similar laws have been passed in Europe and some U.S. states — including the enormous consumer market of California. But no such law exists in Washington, although bills have been introduced each of the past three years.
Ideally, Congress will adopt a national standard for protecting consumer data and striking a balance between the needs of citizens and the needs of corporations. Several bills have been introduced in Washington, D.C., in recent years, but they have languished.
A federal law would be preferable to multiple and inconsistent efforts at the state level. But with Congress demonstrating no interest in addressing something that impacts every facet of American life, states must take the lead.
As The Seattle Times wrote editorially, SB 5062 “strikes a smart balance between industry flexibility and protecting consumers. For example, rather than allow consumers to sue companies, thereby creating a field day of class action lawsuits that ultimately reward only lawyers, it instead gives enforcement authority to the state attorney general.”
As the text of the bill reads: “The ability to harness and use data in positive ways is driving innovation and brings beneficial technologies to society. However, it has also created risks to privacy and freedom.”
A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of American adults believe the risks of corporations collecting data about them outweigh the benefits. An equal 81 percent said they have little or no control over the data collection.
Washington lawmakers should put that power in the hands of the public. As lead sponsor Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said: “In today’s era, consumer data privacy is the soul of economic, social and consumer value, and it goes to the core of our treasured constitutional rights and interests.”